Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Quick Reflexes

So I’ve finally finished my homework (or, as the case may be, other people’s homework that I’ve been marking), and can come out to play – only briefly, unfortunately, as today is a very heavy teaching day for me. I wanted, though, at least to begin to take up Joseph Kugelmass’ post on self-reflexivity (with discussions currently underway at The Kugelmass Episodes and The Valve). I won’t be able to address all the issues Joe raises adequately, in the amount of time I have to reply today. But hopefully I can at least tug on a couple of threads, and see what that manages to unravel…

I want to start with the challenging declaration with which Joe begins: “From my point of view, reflexive critiques are not capable of doing what we want them to do”. In the comments over at The Valve, rob has already suggested the minefield covered over by this casual “we”. ;-) One of the most fascinating things in the cross-blog discussion of self-reflexivity, has been the range of meanings attached to the term “self-reflexivity”. Not surprisingly, these different meanings carry their own, sometimes radically different, senses of what self-reflexive critiques are, and what purpose such critiques might serve. Joe contributes a new vision of self-reflexivity in his post – one that overlaps with some of the meanings in play in the original discussion, but one that also deviates in interesting ways, setting up for some important critical points about the limitations of self-reflexive theory as Joe understands the term. The first question, then, is what Joe takes self-reflexive theory to be – and how “his” self-reflexive theory relates to the version of self-reflexivity I’ve tended to push on this blog.

Readers who haven’t read Joe’s post should start there. I’ll write this response comment-style, and so this may be a bit difficult to follow if you aren’t familiar with what Joe has written.

Joe begins with a couple of quotes from Sondheim and Zizek, illustrating what he takes self-reflexive theory to be. Both quotes centre on a form of analysis in which an individual (or group) reflects consciously on the formative factors (social, economic, life circumstance) that have made them what they are. Mischievously, Joe selects quotes that represent an all-too-familiar narrative trope, in which persons engaging in violent or criminal activity demonstrate that self-reflection – insight into the possible causes of their objectionable behaviour – can quite happily co-exist with the objectionable behaviour itself. In this way, Joe sets up for a critique of the notion – which I agree is quite common in certain forms of critical theoretic work – that knowledge or insight is somehow intrinsically transformative. Joe’s argument is both that insight can quite easily be divorced from transformation – and that transformation can quite easily be divorced from insight.

Throughout Joe’s post, he glosses the concept of “self-reflexivity” with phrases like “self-reflexive thinking” (my italics), and links self-reflexivity to the self-awareness of individuals or groups – to their understanding of, and conscious reflection on, what causes them to be the way they are. Joe questions the possibility of this kind of self-reflexivity, arguing that we “can [n]ever be so self-aware as to lack an unconscious element“. He also questions the power of this kind of self-reflexivity, questioning theories predicated on the notion that “if I come to understand what is causing my behavior, I will lose interest in repeating this behavior”. This is beautiful, challenging material – Joe is right to push these points, and we should continue to discuss them, as he has hit on some important common assumptions about why theoretical practice might be effective that deserve to be interrogated. It’s precisely because I share substantial sympathy with Joe’s questions, that I feel a twinge of guilt for what I will do next, which is to bracket these questions entirely, in order to make what is essentially a terminological point. For, while Joe’s questions are quite valid and deserve a full discussion, I don’t believe they connect with the specific sense of “self-reflexivity” that I put into play, when discussing what Joe has delightfully christened my “great theme”.

To avoid confusion, I’ll follow the convention that emerged in the cross-blog discussion, and use the term “reflexive theory” to refer to the idiosyncratic constellation of concepts I’ve generally tried to capture through the term “self-reflexivity”. A reflexive theory is not primarily concerned with the question of how an individual theorist adopts a critical attitude or orientation toward their context. The point is not to explain how the critic is possible – or to suggest that some special kind of thinking (“self-reflexive thinking”) will somehow magically constitute a rupture that denaturalises the social field and renders transformation possible. The point instead is to unfold an analysis of the social field that highlights (1) how that field tends to be reproduced, and (2) how the very process of reproduction is such that a particular social field cannot be reproduced, without this process of reproduction also entailing the production of determinate possibilities for transformation. By analysing social reproduction in a way that exposes the existence of such possibilities, the theory “self-reflexively” incorporates itself – its own possibility – an account of the origins of the potentials whose existence the theory expresses – into its theory of social reproduction. A reflexive theory is therefore, as Sinthome has expressed it in his contribution to this exchange, a theory that can account for its “own position of enunciation” – a theory that can specify its “standpoint of critique”, and show how that standpoint is immanent to the society being criticised, rather than reflecting some kind of transcendent standpoint outside of society, against which society is being judged and found wanting.

This question is related in complex ways to the question of how people might come to desire transformation (and I’m happy to discuss these relationships in greater detail), but it is analytically distinct from this question. On a philosophical level, reflexivity is intended to allow a theory to be adequate to the concept of immanence – to make a serious attempt at thinking what critique might look like, if we are not asserting (or tacitly smuggling in) transcendent standards that do not arise immanently within the context within which the theorist is situated. On a practical level, reflexivity is intended to identify social, psychological and material resources, generated by collective processes that may not be consciously intended to have any such result, that suggest the possibility for transformative practice. In this specific sense, it’s unintentionally ironic that Joe sought to contrast what he takes to be my focus on reflexivity, with the form of theory Marx deploys in Capital. Joe argues:

When Karl Marx wrote that the contradictions within capitalism would eventually destroy it, he wasn’t writing a purely reflexive analysis. He was writing a historical analysis that used the transition from feudalism to capitalism as a model for the transition from capitalism to socialism.

Leaving aside that I don’t quite read Marx’s argument this way, what Joe is unintentionally pointing to here is actually very close to my sense of “reflexivity”: Marx is, to me, the quintessential reflexive theorist – which may perhaps clarify how far my notion of self-reflexivity is, from the notion of “self-reflexive thinking”. What is “reflexive”, for me, is the theory – not the theorist’s cognition: if a theory is aiming at emancipatory transformation, the theory reflexively allows for its own possibility by theorising its context in such a way as to highlight how that context produces the potential for particular forms of practice that hold the potential for reacting back on the reproduction of society itself.

This may begin to clarify somewhat how I would respond to Joe’s final question, which relates to why I have expressed an objection to theories that centre themselves on notions of intersubjectivity. The point – and rob and Sinthome have both picked up on this, in their respective interventions – is not to argue that the notion of intersubjectivity is invalid, or to suggest that theories that focus on intersubjectivity are somehow logically inconsistent or lacking in methodological rigour. The point – somewhat ironically, given where Joe begins his post – is that such theories are often very poor at thematising non-conscious, unintentional side effects of collective practice. My quarrel isn’t with the notion of theorising intersubjective processes, but with an exclusive focus on such processes. In his interpretive gloss on my (correctly quoted) comment about theories of intersubjectivity, I notice that Joe adds a “the” outside the quotation, and therefore becomes concerned about what I might regard as “the” central dimensions of contemporary society. I want gently to suggest that this is a concern perhaps introduced from the outside – that the definite article was deliberately omitted from my original comment :-) In criticising theories of intersubjectivity, my intention was not to reject them in favour of theories that focus on “the” important issues as I define them, but to draw attention to additional aspects of contemporary society that tend to be overlooked by such theories, including particularly (in the case of my own work) unintended side effects of practices oriented to other purposes entirely.

I’ll have to leave this post in its somewhat undercooked (and unedited!) state – I have to teach until late this evening. Apologies for the truncated discussion here, for the bracketing of important issues, and for any delays that might affect my ability to respond to further comments. The substantive issues Joe raises deserve their own discussion – likely a more interesting one than the terminological issues on which I’ve concentrated here. Hopefully we’ll have time to get back to all these things in the near future.

About these ads

17 responses to “Quick Reflexes

  1. Joseph Kugelmass August 29, 2007 at 5:45 pm

    Dear NP,

    This was a lovely post; it’s true that I probably won’t know exactly how you want to define the factors that escape intersubjectivity until, over an unfolding series of conversations to come, I see what the content of those factors might be. To the extent that Larval Subjects addressed this question of the non-intersubjective, I responded in my comment over there.

    To me, the crux of the matter is here:

    The point instead is to unfold an analysis of the social field that highlights (1) how that field tends to be reproduced, and (2) how the very process of reproduction is such that a particular social field cannot be reproduced, without this process of reproduction also entailing the production of determinate possibilities for transformation.

    As someone interested in the transformation of current social practice, this is utterly familiar and deeply sympathetic, and clearly there is much to do along exactly these lines. However, it seems to me (and I am quite willing to be corrected if I’m wrong about this) that this dual explanation of theoretical self-reflexivity already contains an aversion to the reproduction of the social field, and already contains that desire for transformation which I myself feel. The social field, as it is constituted rhetorically here, is not a vulnerable cycle to be protected, like the agricultural cycle or the cycle of human generations, but rather an oppressive machine from which one pries loose in order to gain perspective and, ultimately, leverage.

    My point is that one actually can separate the desire for change from the practice of self-reflexive theory, though the latter can be a powerful tool in the service of the former. For Nietzsche, who believed in eternal recurrence, for the author of the Bhagavad Gita, who believed in duty, and for the Greeks (especially the Stoics), who believed in fate, self-reflexivity was grounded in the desire for permanence and repetition. In the Gita, Arjuna comes to understand his own immanent position in the world, including his own rebellious desire, and he assimilates himself to history rather than making history. Suppose one were to write: “how the very process of reproduction is such that a particular social field cannot be reproduced, without this process of reproduction also entailing the production of determinate possibilities for corruption.” Then you would have the ethos of the caretaker, rather than that of the revolutionary, and a theory of, say, original sin rather than the perpetual foreclosure of justice by capitalism.

    Larval Subjects pointed out that Lacan frequently insists that there is no such thing as “metalanguage.” That principle applies here, too: suppose one were to argue that the production of historical arguments, including historical arguments about the frailty and oppressiveness of the current system, were themselves agents in the continual reproduction of the status quo. So far, historicism has largely escaped the charge of complicity, a charge that has been leveled quite effectively against other modes of valuation, including humanism, rationalism, and scientism. Nonetheless, given what I consider to be the political marginality of two great historico-political theorists, Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty, the question must be raised again: are the historicist’s claims to efficacy really tenable without the supplement of ahistorical value systems?

    For example, let’s say that we make a historical argument about freedom and equality. The argument might go something like this: the words “freedom” and “equality” contained excesses of meaning when they were coined, despite the fact that in practice freedom and equality were denied to women, colonial subjects, persons of color, and others. Immanently, from within the bourgeois world of the Enlightenment, it became possible not only to conceive of advances like women’s suffrage, but also eventually to conceive of equality in terms that precluded the very capitalist system in which the idea of “equality” first arose.

    But the counter-argument might run something like this: “OK, it’s true that certain reformers have been able to use the rhetoric of the Enlightenment in order to advance their own interests — for example, Western women have gained the right to vote. But that certainly doesn’t mean that the idea of women’s suffrage was always inherent in the idea of equality. To believe that, you’d have to believe that the word ‘equality’ has a timeless meaning, despite the fact that the historical study of language proves that words are constantly used to describe impure or even contradictory states. This would eventually lead back to Platonism via linguistic idealism, because if ‘equality’ has a timeless meaning, then presumably the word ‘purple’ also refers to some supreme and pure Form of the color in which all purple objects are sharers. So the apparently immanent process of approaching nearer to the ‘truth’ of equality was really a historically motivated rhetorical ploy that successfully retrojected an immanent contradiction and excess into a word that had been perfectly usable before then, albeit usable in a different way.”

    None of this is meant as an argument about self-reflexive historical analysis, and I completely agree about the inherent instability and perpetual re-constitution of social fields. However, given the role of self-reflexive analysis in certain forms of social reproduction (for example, the appropriation of rebellion by targeted consumer markets), I thought it was worth noting the difference between historical or self-reflexive knowledge, and the subjective or collective relation of a person or group to history and the immanent potentialities of the present.

  2. Joseph Kugelmass August 29, 2007 at 5:48 pm

    Er, argument against self-reflexive historical analysis. I really must be tired. :)

  3. N Pepperell August 30, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    Hey Joe – Thanks for this – and apologies that I’m taking so long to respond: Wednesday is an exceptionally heavy teaching day for me, and I’m therefore always exhausted when I finish – and still with a sort of teaching hangover the following day (way too much of my own voice in my ears…). I’m still a bit groggy, so if I manage to respond completely off point, just point me back in the direction I ought to be heading ;-)

    I also want to apologise for what will be another set of somewhat pedantic distinctions – and to say in advance that I’m not trying to do this to deflect the impact of your questions, which I think are important, but more to clarify the terrain where I think the questions most appropriately apply. I’m needing to do this, largely, because of my own terminological sloppiness in past discussions – I have often, particularly in casual discussion, used the term “self-reflexivity” in a much looser sense than I’m trying to use the term “reflexive theory” now – largely in response to the cross-blog discussions that have given me a much clearer sense of the shades of meaning different people assign to the term.

    In doing this, I should also stress that I’m not at all trying to dictate how the term be used – no one owns the term “self-reflexivity”, and my own use of the term has been more idiosyncratic than most – but simply to be a bit clearer what I’ve been trying to get at with this vocabulary and, most importantly, what is the strategic intention or “cash value” of the concept that I’ll now call “reflexive theory”. This will probably sound (and be) a bit hair splitting, but the intention is not to protect my work from the sorts of criticisms you are making, but instead to specify the aspects of my work to which those criticisms might apply, so that the issues can then be discussed more precisely.

    I’ll start at the back and work my way up. With the concept of reflexive theory, I’m not actually making an argument about the inherent instability of social fields in any generic way. I don’t have any difficulty believing that social fields might be inherently unstable, but I’m actually trying to make a much more specific (and therefore contingent) claim in discussing the possibility of reflexive theory. Let me see if I can develop this point a bit.

    My first post in this round of discussion was actually on the concept of theoretical pessimism. To translate the argument of that post into the vocabulary and concepts that have crystallised in the course of this discussion: the post on theoretical pessimism was, among other things, drawing a distinction between critical theory – which is to say, any theory that seeks emancipatory transformation – and reflexive social theory – which is to say, a theory that can offer a determinate account of the specific ways in which a particular social field systematically generates specifiable potentials for its own transformation. (Note that a theory can be reflexive, and thus adequate to the standards of immanence, but not be a reflexive social theory – for the moment, I’ll leave this complication aside and speak only of reflexive social theory, without continuously including the qualifier “social”.)

    My argument in that post – and this was developed much further in the subsequent discussion with Nate and Alexei in the comments – was that there is actually no a priori reason to assume that something like reflexive theory is possible. This is because reflexive theory is actually making much stronger and more specific claims than other forms of critical theory. Reflexive theory shares with many other forms of critical theory the notions that no society is a fully enclosed or self-identical totality, and that transformation would use whatever historical materials are ready to hand, but the claims of reflexive theory are actually much more specific than this (and therefore much more questionable, much more open to challenge). Reflexive theory claims that the social field it is analysing systematically generates specific kinds of emancipatory potentials – including particular forms of perception and thought, habits of practice, material resources, etc. – that can be theorised. Reflexive theory is therefore not simply positing that a break or rupture within the social is always possible (although it wouldn’t deny this): it is claiming to be able to say something about the kind of break or rupture – about the sorts of conflicts that are likely to emerge – about the terms in which dissatisfaction is likely to be expressed, etc.

    My point in the theoretical pessimism post was actually to suggest that these are very strange claims. I would take it as a somewhat mystical claim (a mystical claim that was, however, made at one point by certain forms of Marxism) to argue that all human communities organise themselves in such a way that their social practice generates determinate potentials for transformation in such a systematic way that these potentials could actually be theorised in advance of their realisation. On its face, this is an extremely weird claim – and, in writing that post, I wanted its weirdness on full display. I also wanted to foreground that, when someone from a Frankfurt School direction starts talking about “theoretical pessimism”, they mean something very specific: that a particular theoretical tradition – which may be quite “optimistic” in its belief in the possibility for “rupture” or for some kind of indeterminate “break” with the present context – does not provide a reflexive theory of the potential for transformation – does not say anything specific about the sorts of breaks or ruptures that exist as determinate potentials, generated in theorisable ways, within a specific social field.

    I happen to think that a reflexive theory of capitalism is possible – but this is because I conceptualise capitalism in a particular way. I wouldn’t, for example, think a reflexive theory of feudalism would have made much sense. This clearly doesn’t mean that I think feudalism was self-identical or incapable of being transformed. I just don’t see any particular evidence of the sort of systematic generation of potentials for particular kinds of transformation that could have been theorised from within that social field (well, more accurately, I don’t like applying the term “social field” to something like “feudalism”, which I think is a retrospective category of convenience that we use to demarcate a fairly diverse set of social environments or varying levels of cohesion and interrelatedness, but I’m not trying to go into this level of detail here…). So a reflexive theory would be appropriate only to a very specific kind of social “object” – an object that is not only non-identical or internally contradictory or subject to rupture, but an object that is internally contradictory in a peculiarly systematic way. (There is an entire discussion then to be had here about how other attempts at reflexive theory have then used concepts of “totality” and “necessity” to capture such systemic properties – concepts that I reject – but I’ll leave this complication aside for now.)

    I may not be able to unfold such a theory. Capitalism also may not be such an object. But the strategic intention or direct “cash value” of the notion of reflexive social theory is that it picks out this specific kind of social object – and therefore tries to make very specific claims about the determinate sorts of potentials that a social field generates, and about the ways in which those potentials are generated. (Again, theories can be “reflexive” without being “social” – the more general concept of a “reflexive” theory is bound together with standards for how to offer a critique, when you are trying not to have recourse to some sort of context-shattering notion of objectivity. So there are elements of “reflexivity” that I would argue are incumbent on any form of secular critical theory, but for the moment I am trying to focus on reflexivity within the context of a social theory.)

    To get back to some of the specific issues you raise in your comment: my sense is still that you are positioning your questions on the terrain of “self-reflexivity” understood as something like “enlightened self awareness” – thinking that the “cash value” of the concept of theoretical reflexivity lies in some kind of claim that it is intrinsically transformative to bring things to awareness. As I indicated in my previous comment, I think there is an extremely interesting conversation to be had here. I just don’t think this conversation relates directly to the “cash value” of the concept of theoretical reflexivity, which is not directly trying to make an argument about whether awareness is transformative, but is instead trying to express a form of theory adequate to a very specific kind of social “object”. In other words, in terms of the distinction in your final paragraph, I see theoretical reflexivity to be much more about “the subjective or collective relation of a person or group to history and to the potentialities of the present”, than about “historical or self-reflexive knowledge” – with the exception that I tend personally not to thematise the relation of particular groups or individuals to the potentials of the present, but this has to do with the fact that I don’t tend to grasp potentials as bound intrinsically to particular empirical persons or groups (apologies that this last point is so underdeveloped here).

    I also wanted to pick up on the way in which you run together several terms in your discussion above: historicism, self-reflexivity, and self-reflexive historical analysis. You make the passing point that “historicism has largely escaped the charge of complicity”, but then you provide what you position as counterfactual examples of how a historicist sensibility could well become complicit with social reproduction. Interestingly, I actually do regard certain forms of historicism as complicit – this is a critique that Benjamin, for example, makes very strongly. This would be why I don’t consider myself an historicist. ;-) I’m not, in other words, trying to use the concept of theoretical reflexivity to argue that we need to explore the historical origins of things, and I would largely agree that historicist forms of theory are likely to be ineffective in orienting action. But from my point of view, this is because most forms of historicism tend to be pessimistic theories, rather than reflexive ones: they tend to try to establish the possibility that things might be otherwise, in the absence of a theory of the generation of determinate potentials for specific forms of transformation. I mean “pessimistic”, of course, in the narrow technical sense in which I’ve been using the term – and I want to continue to foreground that pessimism in this narrow technical sense may, in fact, be completely appropriate – as I’ve suggested above, I think we can only move beyond this if our social field has very specific properties. But I’m trying to explore the possibility that more might be possible.

    Which brings us to your hypothetical argument about equality. My impulse here is to say that the problem is created precisely because of the hypothetical framing of the question. I would agree that there is nothing in the “idea” of equality that contains in any intrinsic way all of the subsequent ways this term comes to be mobilised politically – in my terminology, simply pointing political expressions back to the existence of this “idea”, would be insufficient as a “ground” for a “critical standpoint” that wanted to express some determinate potential for political mobilisation around some specific notion of equality. What I’d like to do here is parachute down a bit into Marx’s discussion, both of equality and of contestation over the length of the working day, to give a sense of how to tackle this sort of question without leaving it free-floating at the level of an abstract hypothesis. This may be an annoying deferral, but I’m honestly too exhausted to tackle this today.

    I can say in passing (with the understanding that there’s no reason for anyone to accept this unfounded point) that the specification of a “transformative potential” might be able to address some of the questions you’re asking, if it goes beyond the excavation of ideals sedimented in culture, and begins to unfold a more practical and situated analysis of how people actually practice (often unintentionally) certain ideals, such that the ideals are not “abstractions” that arise in a process of reflection, but are something more like enacted social entities – something I’ve occasionally tried to capture with the term “real abstraction”.

    When I have time to dig back through Marx, I’ll try to unfold one example of an alternative way of attacking the issue of emancipatory potentials – with the caveat that I do not read Marx as someone who, as you expressed this in your original post, looks back into history, and finds in the transition from feudalism to capitalism a model for the transition from capitalism to socialism.

    Apologies for leaving this murky – Thursdays aren’t my best days for substantive writing… I’ll also have to apologise that I’m simply too tired to read back over this – I usually at least try to check that there aren’t missing “nots” and such… Hopefully the comment won’t be too confusing.

  4. rob August 30, 2007 at 2:59 pm

    I’m not, in other words, trying to use the concept of theoretical reflexivity to argue that we need to explore the historical origins of things, and I would largely agree that historicist forms of theory are likely to be ineffective in orienting action. But from my point of view, this is because most forms of historicism tend to be pessimistic theories, rather than reflexive ones: they tend to try to establish the possibility that things might be otherwise, in the absence of a theory of the generation of determinate potentials for specific forms of transformation.

    Yes (Yes)! This is it in a nutshell, for me. It also happens to be a repetition (more or less) of the argument that attracted me to this blog, and one which I think would very much inform Joseph about what’s at stake in your idiosyncratic deployment of the terms “reflexive theory”, “immanence”, etc.

    I can’t help but make sense of the positions in terms of what I see as the difference between the genealogies/governmentalities of the likes of Ian Hunter and Barry Hindess and the grammatology and hauntology (to pretend for a moment that these things are “historico-theoretico-systems”) of Derrida. Hindess and Hunter are pessimistic in the sense you outline here insofar as they seek to demonstrate — in the absence (or so they think) of some presumed injunction or normative position — the historical nature of things, and thereby seek to “delimit” what they call “critique” or “theory”. Against their respective stances against critique, I think it’s possible to affirm the historical nature of normative frameworks, etc., thereby conceding their limits, but still affirm — and even provisionally, hesitantly justify — an injunction to remain open to the possibility of transformation.

  5. N Pepperell August 30, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    rob – I’ve had the same reaction to Derrida’s work (with my very, very limited exposure to it) – I referred somewhere in the sprawling discussion with Nate a couple of weeks back to Derrida’s notion of “hauntology”, as it captures something (tentatively, since I’m not on very firm ground discussing Derrida) very similar to what I often use Benjamin or Marx to capture. And yes, this is the idea:

    I think it’s possible to affirm the historical nature of normative frameworks, etc., thereby conceding their limits, but still affirm — and even provisionally, hesitantly justify — an injunction to remain open to the possibility of transformation.

    Without trying to speak for his views, if I haven’t gotten the wrong impression, I suspect that Tom from Grundlegung is reaching for something along these lines, as well.

  6. N Pepperell August 30, 2007 at 3:55 pm

    By the way, I’m in the market for less idiosyncratic terms, if you have any suggestions… ;-)

  7. rob August 30, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    Pfft! How are you going to become a world-famous, method-setting, disciple-gathering Theorist if you use terms that people already know?!

  8. IndieFaith August 31, 2007 at 12:03 am

    Too much to read! I have not got into the thick of the above discussion but I wanted to express appreciation for this post. I have recently been venturing into new territory in the blogosphere and have been surprised at the work and articulation being done on immanence. This has really forced me to move past some of my assumed positions and is making me do some fresh reflection on my stream of thought.

    I would appreciate any criticism on my most recent post on the matter (click IndieFaith above; my attempts at creating links in comment boxes always seem to fail). I hope to catch more up to speed on your overall project. All the best.

  9. N Pepperell August 31, 2007 at 7:05 am

    IndieFaith – You’re not the only person who has recently commented on the volume of posts among the theory blogs… :-) These things go through bursts – cross-blog discussions erupt from time-to-time, and then we all eventually get a bit exhausted, and things quieten down while we process what just happened. ;-)

    You should be able to post links (people should let me know if this isn’t working), by using the standard html code:

    link text

    (Note that the rel=”nofollow” bit is automatically added by WordPress – you don’t have to type that – I just can’t stop it from printing out, even between xmp tags… ;-P)

    The spam filter will sometimes hold posts with multiple links – if this happens, just email me and I’ll dig out the post.

    I’ll take a look at your site when I have the chance.

    rob – so does this mean that confusing people with idiosyncratic terms is all I need to do for world fame – ’cause, if so…. ;-P

  10. Joseph Kugelmass September 6, 2007 at 10:13 am

    Dear NP,

    Once again, the oddities of my summer schedule have fragmented my voice in this conversation, something I truly regret since you’ve responded so fully and thoughtfully. Please accept my apologies for being held up until now.

    Since both you and rob have suggested that I’m misreading your use of the term “self-reflexive,” in looking at your new comment I tried to suspend my own assumptions in order to see more clearly how you meant the term. I want to highlight two passages in particular.

    First:

    Reflexive theory is actually making much stronger and more specific claims than other forms of critical theory. Reflexive theory shares with many other forms of critical theory the notions that no society is a fully enclosed or self-identical totality, and that transformation would use whatever historical materials are ready to hand, but the claims of reflexive theory are actually much more specific than this (and therefore much more questionable, much more open to challenge). Reflexive theory claims that the social field it is analysing systematically generates specific kinds of emancipatory potentials – including particular forms of perception and thought, habits of practice, material resources, etc. – that can be theorised. Reflexive theory is therefore not simply positing that a break or rupture within the social is always possible (although it wouldn’t deny this): it is claiming to be able to say something about the kind of break or rupture – about the sorts of conflicts that are likely to emerge – about the terms in which dissatisfaction is likely to be expressed, etc.

    Second:

    I just don’t see any particular evidence of the sort of systematic generation of potentials for particular kinds of transformation that could have been theorised from within that social field (well, more accurately, I don’t like applying the term “social field” to something like “feudalism”, which I think is a retrospective category of convenience that we use to demarcate a fairly diverse set of social environments or varying levels of cohesion and interrelatedness, but I’m not trying to go into this level of detail here…). So a reflexive theory would be appropriate only to a very specific kind of social “object” – an object that is not only non-identical or internally contradictory or subject to rupture, but an object that is internally contradictory in a peculiarly systematic way.

    Starting with the first quote, it’s not entirely clear to me how this kind of “reflexivity” differs from the rest of critical practice. The critique of political economy predicts breaks or ruptures within the existing system, and demonstrates how those breaks or ruptures contain emancipatory potentials. What this kind of theory is not yet doing, at least not in this paragraph, is recursing: that is, investigating its own groundedness in the existing system, and justifying itself as emancipatory rather than complicit. After all, if you are going to tell people that the worlds in which they live are likely to suffer breaks and ruptures, and that these breaks and ruptures will ultimately emancipate them rather than merely leading to entropy and chaos, you have to have some way of proving that these are not false hopes, either the kind of false hopes that have historically led to “uplift” movements and waiting for the rupture to manifest itself, or the kind that lead after a prolonged power struggle to anarchy (inciting the rupture). So perhaps the theory should be recursive, but so long as it is not, I am hard pressed to see what makes it specifically reflexive rather than merely critically engaged with problems of immanence.

    There are many kinds of social justice movements that are not theorized recursively; for example, efforts to raise the minimum wage or redress hunger on the local level usually do not have a sophisticated theoretical account of their own origins and legitimate radicality. In my opinion they do not need one. Nonetheless, the very existence of practical problems like hunger, and the inseparability of “emancipation” from these practical concerns, raises questions about whether immanence should be, as it were, “fenced in” by a particular version of the political economy, what Foucault might call a particular episteme. In other words, if hunger has always been a problem and has always found saints enough to oppose it, then the problem of universal sustenance may be immanent to the human condition and not just immanent to the unusually systematic universe of capitalism. More on this in a moment, when I come to the second quotation.

    Before I do, I am compelled to ask how reflexive theory justifies the assumption that ruptures or breaks are untotalizable. I’ve worked as a housekeeper, a budget analyst, a teacher, and a librarian, to give a very incomplete list, and in each case there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction in the workplace, one which was expressed in predictable ways: complaints, turnover, weekend recreation (for some unhappy individuals, substance abuse), occasional institutional reforms, and so on. Both inside and outside the workplace, dissatisfaction was expected and channelized in numerous ways — by employers looking to appear sympathetic, by advertisers looking to sell products, and so on. One response to poverty is the creation of a welfare-state safety net; another is the establishment of impregnable gated communities. Within a capitalist system that is arguably founded on the drama of “unleashing” desire and creating ruptures (e.g. through innovation), how can anyone be sure what within the system is as vulnerable or unrealized as it appears?

    Turning now to the second quote, I have to raise a question about the feasibility of granting capitalism exceptional status as an object of critique. It would be better for theory if capitalism was exceptional in this way — different from feudalism, and different from other social formations — because then the critique of capitalism would also be exceptional, and so capable of actually being emancipatory in a way that might otherwise seem unlikely. My response is threefold:

    (1) Capitalism is not a unified field; capitalism in Nairobi or Beijing does not work the same way that it does in San Antonio or Havana. Land ownership, hierarchies of title and power, and the nature of peasant populations varied under feudalism; worker status, conventions of ownership, obsolescence, and retention, management of human resources, and the presence or absence of intentionality and “planning” are but a few of the conditions that vary from one state and site to the next.

    (2) Change did emerge systematically under feudalism, particularly through the much-discussed phenemonon of the rise of mercantilism and the merchant class.

    (3) Critical theory perhaps requires capitalism to be exceptional if it wishes to be transformative and meanwhile to remain a purely “negative” dialectics, but to the extent that it aligns itself with emancipatory traditions, it assumes positive content by becoming an inheritor of universalism, a project that long pre-dates the specific advent of capitalism and that can invert the hierarchy of primacy by making capitalism a failed or illusory universalism, rather than being the death that capitalism grows for itself.

  11. Alexei September 7, 2007 at 6:01 am

    Hi NP,

    As I was reading through Joseph Kugelmass’ response, and the comments here, it occurred to me that there are, perhaps, two separate concerns in play, which I don’t think I’ve seen separated. On the one hand, there’s your concern for a particular mode of theorising, and then there’s Joseph’s concern for the dissemination of such a mode of thought among what one used to call the masses. I tend to think of these two issue as being distinct. That is, whether a theory can be reflexive seems to be utterly distinct from the question concerning whether the emancipatory potentials a reflexive theory uncovers can be conveyed (without distortion) to those who would carry them out.

    I also think that the difference between your position, NP, and the one I take Joseph to be articulating (my apologies, Joseph, if I’ve misunderstood) amounts to a different conception of theorising: NP seems to me to be articulating a speculative account of society (i.e. she appears to be interested in a particular form of the ‘identity of what is non-identical:’ the emancipatory potentials of a given social organisation and the preexisting, rational conditions which re-affirm what currently exists as society. Joseph, on the other hand, appears to be attacking the limits of reflection — “they know what they do, but do it anyway” — as a rationalizing force, which carries the potential for emancipation. If I’m right about this, then Joseph’s criticism is an excellent critique of various Kantian paradigms for social theory, but it is not a position that NP holds.

    I think that’s it for now. Cheers

  12. Joseph Kugelmass September 7, 2007 at 9:26 am

    Alexei,

    Like rob, you’ve done an excellent job helping to distinguish my position from NP’s; I only mourn the fact that once again I end up tilting at strawmen, rather than, as I would prefer, building up my understanding of NP’s project.

    Your distinction between mode and dissemination is crucial to a larger discussion about what theory does, and what it means for a theorist to pursue a politically important interest. Put simply, how can a theorist be interested in emancipatory potentials that only reveal themselves via a certain kind of critique, unless he or she is simultaneously concerned with the dissemination of that theory in the name of actual emancipation?

    The metaphor here is not that of a telescope, which allows us to see things (e.g. Saturn’s rings) that we are not modifying in the process. A telescope on Earth is outside of the semi-closed system that is “Saturn and its rings.” What we do with the knowledge we gain is a separate question.

    Instead, the metaphor is that of the lockpick. If we use a lockpick to open a door, we simultaneously learn what is inside and gain access to that thing. We affect the state of the room itself: even if we do nothing, the proprietors will return, see that the lock has been tampered with, and install a new deadbolt.

    In other words, unless we entertain the idea that theory is so irrelevant to the social field that is really is like looking through a telescope at Saturn, we have to assume that theory cannot be neutral, that it is implicated in the very fissure-points it seeks to analyze, and therefore that its mode and its dissemination are one.

  13. N Pepperell September 7, 2007 at 10:43 am

    Hey Alexei! Hey Joe! – I just wanted to apologise that I’ve been so unavailable the last few days – I have a great deal of other writing to do, and have been needing to keep myself in a particular thought-space to get that done, and so haven’t been able to engage with this, which would have been a much more enjoyable discussion. Today, unfortunately, is packed with meetings, so I have only a very brief amount of time to write, and I won’t be able to do justice to the issues raised, in the time I have.

    Joe – just very quickly: I absolutely agree with the need to thematise the issues you’re describing – in my very first response to you, in the post above, there’s a link off to a post on “sociology and psychology” (apologies – rushing – but the link is in the original post up top), which raised the need to combine a social theory of the sort that I’m trying to unfold, with a very different kind of theoretical reflection on what Alexei is calling “dissemination” and on what I think touches on some of the issues you’re trying to capture. The linked post is an early one, and probably didn’t express this distinction clearly, but should at least give some indication that I’m sympathetic to what you’re saying – but am trying to make a particular distinction with the concept of “theoretical reflexivity” that allows me to make certain conceptual distinctions between kinds of theory and kinds of theoretical objects.

    The strategic intention of the distinctions I’m trying to make may not be clear – I can try to express this better when I have more time – but there’s nothing in what I’m trying to do that I see as at all hostile to the sorts of things you’d like to see done. It’s just that the concept of “theoretical reflexivity” won’t really clarify what I think about the issue of dissemination, because it’s not really what this particular concept is trying to “pick out”. I can understand why this is frustrating – and I do think the issues you’re raising are important. I just can’t really answer your questions with reference to this concept, because this isn’t the level at which the concept is operating in a direct sense (although it does carry some implications for the questions you’re asking, but these are mediated and more on the level of boundary conditions).

    If you’ll forgive an extremely random stab at some of the issues you raised in your first recent comment: on a couple of occasions, you try to draw a contrast between what I’m doing and “the critique of political economy”. The critique of political economy, though – if by this you mean Marx’s work in Capital – is actually my source and model for the concept of theoretical reflexivity: this term is intended to make explicit something Marx is doing in Capital, in a situation in which Marx offers very few metatheoretical clarifications about the strategy of his analysis.

    Which brings us to your next point: you comment – quite correctly – that I’m not being reflexive (in my sense or any other) in this discussion: this is absolutely correct. To be reflexive in the sense in which I intend the term would require a fully unfolded theory. I’m not ready to do that, and so the discussion at this point really is just at the level of metatheory: I’m going through a process of trying to understand how a particular kind of critical theory needs to “work” – developing some programmatic descriptions of what it needs to do, and why, and how its theoretical moves differ, if they differ, from other common forms of theory. At this stage, though, I haven’t actually shown that I can meet any of the metatheoretical standards I’m outlining – I try to be quite explicit about this, and am under no illusions about the preliminary character of my analysis.

    Aside from the fact that my own theoretical work is very much in-process, there’s an intrinsic problem with this kind of theory – Hegel expresses it well at the beginning of Phenomenology (unfortunately I don’t have time to find the quote – apologies), where he talks about how “science” can’t operate dogmatically – that it has to unfold its own premises (including premises like “immanence”, “materialism”, or “reflexivity”) immanently in the unfolding of its own analysis. Hegel comments that one side effect of this is that, at the beginning of the analysis, what I’m calling a “reflexive” theory will always look just as dogmatic as what it’s criticising – it will look as though it is starting from “ungrounded grounds” or first principles, and therefore the nature of its critique of other forms of theory will seem fairly opaque. As the analysis unfolds, the theory has to move beyond this, through its immanent analysis, to demonstrate how the theory is the theory of its object – that the possibility (Hegel would probably say the “necessity”) for the theory was implicit in the object all along.

    I would argue (and I’m by no means the only person who argues this) that Marx is using this theoretical structure in Capital: that the initial categories (commodity, use value, exchange value, etc.) look dogmatic to begin with – they look like definitions that Marx is positing, from which he will then deduce other things. Or they look like his description of “bourgeois ideology” – illusory abstractions that he then refutes with reference to the “reality” of production.

    I think the textual strategy of Capital is much more complex: that Marx explicitly says that what he is trying to grasp exists neither in circulation nor in production – although it is expressed by both. I therefore take his text as an immanently voiced presentation of a reflexive theory of capitalism, which unfolds its key theoretical categories by showing how these forms of thought and their associated practices are generated as moments within the social form being criticised. This is the kind of theory I am trying to do.

    I want to get to your questions about totality, and also your concluding questions about capitalism, but I simply don’t have the time today – I’ll have to come back to these and other issues later – apologies again – this is very frustrating for me, as I’d like to offer a more productive response… :-) What I can say is that I suspect I’m using “totality” in a slightly different sense: saying that something is a “totality” means something a bit different from saying that a social context generates certain patterns that can be generalised. I clearly believe there are certain systematic tendencies – otherwise I don’t think we could speak of critical theory as a determinate negation (apologies for tossing another technical term – rushing badly…). But I distinguish this from claims about a social totality. I also don’t reject the notion of a totality in any dogmatic way, although, as I mentioned in the paragraph on Hegel above, I understand that it might sound this way. Notions of totality and necessity have been very common ways of understanding theoretical reflexivity, and my position is that these concepts may not be necessary to reflexivity.

    In terms of capitalism’s historical distinctiveness: I won’t have time to defend this position here but, yes, I do think capitalism is distinctive. I think it’s a global social relation that is not identical with any specific concrete institutional incarnation, but defined in terms of a systematic and theorisable pattern of historical transformation – to me, this qualifies as historically unique. And I think that, unless we can grasp this uniqueness theoretically, it’s very difficult to understand certain very basic things about our social context – including the problem of the failure of certain large-scale utopian projects.

    In terms of whether feudalism also had some sort of internal historical dynamic: personally, I’m extraordinarily sceptical – and this scepticism isn’t random: this is the specific issue I studied for years, in preparation for my current work. There’s no reason, of course, for you to trust my personal assertions about what I think of medieval history, but my scepticism stands on strong sociological ground: both Weber and Marx (by Capital) treat capitalism as something that emerged contingently. They suggest that, from our current standpoint, we can certainly look back and reconstruct what historical shifts were necessary in order to lead to us; these historical shifts, though, would not have been visible as such in their own time. Capitalism, however, is thematised differently by both authors: as a social form that has an immanent developmental dynamic whose directionality can be theorised in advance (whether we agree with how they tried to do this is another matter). The narrative of capitalism for both authors is therefore in the form of a story of “the contingent creation of necessity”, and both distinguish the kind of necessity they treat as characteristic of capitalism, from the reconstructive logic with which they explain the origins of capitalism out of feudalism – only capitalism is thematised as an “iron cage” or as a dark “Geist”.

    We don’t have to accept these narratives, of course – but I certainly wouldn’t casually suggest that it’s common to speak as though all forms of human community possess some kind of intrinsic developmental dynamic.

    And very very quickly, in terms of the “privileged status” of the theory of capitalism: this isn’t a type of game I’m playing. I’m not telling people not to engage in other forms of theory, or that other kinds of analysis are unimportant. It is an explicit dimension of my project to delimit more clearly the sorts of things a reflexive theory of capitalism can grasp, and the sorts of things that remain contingent from within that specific sort of theory. I do tend to think that theories need to be adequate to their objects, and I think that capitalism as an object has certain peculiar characteristics that make a certain kind of theory possible (and requisite) – but this means that the metatheoretical comments I’m making are not intended to be some kind of manual for “how to theorise”: the object dictates its appropriate mode of theorisation. This is why I emphasise that my metatheoretical statements about reflexive theory are also and intrinsically claims about my object: they might not be relevant to other kinds of theoretical work.

    Hugely sorry for writing like this – I’ll probably introduce all manner of new confusions, writing in a rush… Apologies if this just creates new messes for everyone…

    And Alexei: good to see you back, and hope you’re enjoying your renewed appreciation of Kafka ;-P

  14. Alexei September 8, 2007 at 1:58 am

    Joseph,

    while I too share your concern for the practicality of theory or philosophy, and I agree with you hat there is no such thing as ‘neutral theorizing.’ But I’m not at all sure I would agree with either of your metaphors. Like you, I don’t buy the idea that theory is mere observation. Nor, however do i think that there is an incisive — and decisive — moment, which, if missed, signals the failure to actualize whatever possibility it uncovered. Even if one picks the lock to an other’s home, bt takes nothing, and the other installs a new deadbolt, one still has the tools — and the skill — to pick it again, not to mention the knowledge of where the valuables are kept. As I see the matter, only fashion and reactionary politics can be “revolutionary”; Radical change, I think, is slow in coming.

    So, if I might proffer my own analogy, I tend to think that philosophy/theory is much more like (but not identical to) Schrödinger’s box in that it is always already a world constituting and transforming intervention — although its effects are not as immediate or as direct as perhaps we would like them to be. It’s objects are social kinds, and hence produced by social practices, which can be changed by different modes of thinking. To pick up the example you used here, we need only think about the number of people who smoke today, compared to the number of folks who smoked in the first half of the 20th Century. And, while it may be true that I can come to recognize that I am addicted to cigarettes, and that smoking is killing me (however slowly), but nevertheless continue to smoke — and enjoy it — I may also affirm the various anti-smoking (by-)laws that prohibit smoking in public places, attempt to make sure minors cannot begin to smoke, etc. I can change the way we think about smoking. And, with a little luck smoking will be passé, a few generations down the road, . It may not help me, but it nevertheless changes the complexion of our social spheres.

    Similarly, a theorist pursues a political interest by thinking and writing about it (I realize this probably sounds naive, but please bear with me). He disseminates his mode of thought by talking, by teaching, and by publishing, though not necessarily to bring about any immediate change, but rather to initiate its possibility (think here of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex). That is to say, a theorist creates politically important issues by making them public.

    Now, perhaps I’m too patient, but I’m sceptical of every brand of millinerian theory, any Leninist avant-guardism (like Zizek’s), which promises that the revolution is (or could be) imminent, or that Utopia must come here and now. I’m sceptical of quick fixes, since they tend to come in moments of crisis, of implacable guilt, and they only lead to the continuation of crisis. At the moment, I actually think that we need more thinking, and less (mindless, instinctual, or responsive) action. We need to understand what it means to act politically, what a political action entails, whom it affects, and what it requires. And all this is this is a far cry from picking a lock, and stealing the establishment’s stereo for the good of the folks on the street.

  15. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » What Is Radical?

  16. Joseph Kugelmass September 16, 2007 at 6:38 am

    NP,

    Finally, the leisure to return to this conversation! You and Alexei both wrote wonderful comments; I think I’ll respond to Alexei’s comment in the post following, where you foregrounded it.

    Since I think I understand you much better now, this will mostly be a sort of mirror to what you’ve written, with some pointers towards where future conversations could go.

    First of all, I recognize the distinction between the working out of a system, and the dissemination of that system. For reasons I’ll explain in my response to Alexei, I think the distinction is a conditional one, yet in general there is a kind of spacing here that allows my thinking about dissemination, and yours about reflexivity, to be developing in parallel rather than at odds. It makes perfect sense to say that a theory has to find its way before it can account for itself, and there is a funny sort of analogy here to the whole process of literary production, from the (usually) mystical origins of its imaginative structure, all the way to the accumulated criticism done later by others.

    In terms of capitalism’s historical uniqueness, I do see how the globalism and systematicity of the present world market differs from the (by comparison) highly localized kingdoms and territories of the feudal world. My only question is how you would want to theorize the real phenomenon of uneven development. Somewhere, I think in Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, I was just reading about a tribe in Brazil that, as late as the 1960s, would not have been able to supply a definition for “Brazil.”

    I have no difficulty identifying your version of, and interest in, political critique with the work Marx sets out to do in Capital and the other texts. Really, what surprises me is the way in which returning to Marx, and ranging yourself with Hegel’s beautiful defense of the naive beginning, is also a move away from the pessimism of the Frankfurt school, who seemed to have felt themselves beyond Marx since, lost though they were, they were no longer capable of sharing his revolutionary hopes.

    I’ve been reading Dennett together with Godel, Escher, Bach, and perhaps for that reason I’m struck by the way that your model of capitalism resembles both models of life, and recursive, self-duplicating systems more generally. Into some inchoate space, a special kind of matter (DNA) appears that has the capacity over time to duplicate itself and colonize the field while preserving its same structure. I wonder what you make of this homology, and what you make of the overlaps with thinking about ecosystems and homeostasis. It seems to me that while something like Weber’s “iron cage” suggests stasis, many radically-informed models of capitalism describe it as incapable of becoming truly stable, unlike a living ecosystem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 25 other followers

%d bloggers like this: