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.