Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Outline of a Practice of Theory

Just a quick pointer to Alexei’s “Philosophy and Social Change” over at Now-Times. In this post, Alexei picks up more systematically on several of the threads from the recent discussions here and at The Kugelmass Episodes (cross-posted to The Valve) on how to conceptualise the relationship of theory and practice. A brief teaser:

Such a concepion of the import of Theory for social, ‘radical’ change, might shift the implicit question that seems to guide the current politicization of the humanities. The predominant view that the Humanities lack any immediate effect hen it comes to social and political change of certain tendencies of theory, which is concentrated in Literary studies and Philosophy, or perhaps even from Anthropology and Sociology, stems from a guilty conscience that ‘necessarily attaches to our precise social position: we can study only within a system, but the price of being able to study is effectively the renunciation of any direct, practical activity. We don’t build bridges, or even dig ditches. We don’t save lives, or even make them ‘better’ (or maybe that’s just me and my relationship to my students). And since there are only 24 hours in the day, and some of us are profoundly lazy, we simply can’t be as directly engaged as we think we ought to be. Being an academic these days amounts to a guilty conscience precisely because we are aware of our paradoxical situation. We rely upon a system we wish to change and simultaneously insulate ourselves from this very system in order to pursue our academic — and generally impractical in the short term — studies. More than anything else, I think that the burgeoning guilt of being an academic (in the Humanities) accounts for the politicization of various fields in the humanities.

Now, I’m certainly not claiming that this is a bad thing. I would, however, like to point out that no one, prior to, say, May ‘68, would have ever thought that the humanities were somehow ineffectual. And it’s this shift that needs to be investigated.

I’ll have to apologise to both Alexei and Joe, as well as to anyone else who has been following these exchanges, for not being able to dive into this discussion in greater detail: I’m in the middle of some particularly difficult conceptual work at the moment, and need to remain a bit single-minded for the next several days. So, while I may (or may not!) toss up some further contributions to the series of posts on Capital, as these posts relate to what I’m currently working on, my ability to participate in other discussions will be severely curtailed for the moment. In the interim, there’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on in the comments here without me (!), and in Alexei’s post at Now-Times – and I do promise to pick up the various hanging threads from this discussion as soon as I can free myself of my current domination by the form of Value… ;-P

8 responses to “Outline of a Practice of Theory

  1. rob September 17, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    This is a question that interests me a great deal. But it’s also (consequently) one that I’ve dealt with a number of times previously, on blogs and elsewhere. Most recently I’ve entered similar debates with CR at Long Sunday and with Nate at What In The Hell…?.

    The thing is, I’m getting to the point that I find myself saying the same things over again, as much as I find myself reading the same things over and over again. So, it’s refreshing to see a novel point being made: “I would, however, like to point out that no one, prior to, say, May ‘68, would have ever thought that the humanities were somehow ineffectual. And it’s this shift that needs to be investigated.” Leaving the exaggeration of the claim aside (no one would have thought the humanities were ineffectual?), I really appreciate Alexei’s attempt give the debate a new (or alternative) focus.

    To show my appreciation, then, I’ll try to find a new way to articulate at least one of my thoughts on the question of the politics of theory or of intellectual work generally. It pretty much comes back to the recurring question of what one means by or expects of a politics of academic work, a fortiori what one means by or expects of politics as such. Nate and I gave that little term a bit of a thrashing as part of our attempt to explore the possibilities of politics (labour v. institutional v. democratic v. cultural, etc., etc.), but the key point is simply that it would be naive to think that one’s treatise on avant-garde poetry (say) would be a major cause in “bringing about the revolution”.

    By the end of the debate, Nate was still pessimistic about academic work making any political difference, which he distinguished from the ethical differences that intellectual work might bring about. I remain more optimistic, so long as we are talking primarily about “politics” as “institutional politics”: questions of sanction and authority within a given institutional purview; of the differentially available capacities to act or to judge or speak (etc.) in a given situation; of the arbitrary (in the sense of non-necessary) preservation or transformation of institutional forms of action, response, speech, etc.; as well as, if not most importantly, the provisional, iterable marking and re-marking of the limits between the “inside” and “outside” of a given institution, hence population (or, in other words, processes of inclusion and exclusion).

    For me, theory can be political to the extent that engages with and transforms such institutional structures, etc. (It may have the potential to be political in other, unanticipatable ways, too, but I’ll not make any more positive comment on the possibility than that.) Consequently, if we’re going to speak of theory’s relation to politics, I think it’s important that we stress that theory may be politically transformative in relation primarily to a very specific (i.e. limited), if unstable and contestable, set of “objects”. And these objects are the various techniques for conceptualising, arguing, analysing, etc. that theory works with, through and against.

    In other words — and this perhaps goes a little against what Alexei has said about theory as being political by making an issue public — I don’t think the political effects of Theory (even less so “non-Theory” academic work) are felt most with regard to the object under analysis. Rather, the political effects of theory (although I feel a tad embarrassed about describing them as “political”, since that word is perhaps too grand to adequately describe the modest accomplishments of theory) are felt in relation to the modes of thinking that theory challenges and institutes, and they are felt at the “endpoint” of a pedagogy that aims at developing capacities for critical thinking (i.e. modes of thinking premised on the unconventional techniques that Theory has helped formalise and institute).

    And all of that is way, way too sure an account of what I think are the possibilities of the politics of academic work. Unfortunately, I’ve not had the time to be as hesitant and qualified as I am in my other debates. Consequently, should someone seek to use any of the above formulations against me, I shall shamelessly disclaim them and direct my critics to the earlier linked debates instead.

  2. Alexei September 20, 2007 at 3:45 am

    Rob,

    Sorry for taking so long to respond, I’ve had a spotty connection to the things online for a few days. Anyway, here are my responses. Concerning your remark that

    For me, theory can be political to the extent that engages with and transforms such institutional structures, etc. (It may have the potential to be political in other, unanticipatable ways, too, but I’ll not make any more positive comment on the possibility than that.) Consequently, if we’re going to speak of theory’s relation to politics, I think it’s important that we stress that theory may be politically transformative in relation primarily to a very specific (i.e. limited), if unstable and contestable, set of “objects”. And these objects are the various techniques for conceptualising, arguing, analysing, etc. that theory works with, through and against.

    Now, I’ve realized rather recently that I am something of an Idealist, in the sense that I think that substantive change is, by and large, a change in the way we think about the world rather than changing the world to fit the way we think about it. Given this perspective, I’m tempted to say that the ‘limits’ of theory, or of theory’s objects, constitute one of the problem spaces that theorists investigate. I don’t think, in other words, that there’s an a priori limit to, or specification of what theory can make public and change. Insofar as we can speak of such a limit, I think we are actually articulating a historically determined one, one which is fraught with tensions, fractures, and other ‘slack spaces’ that generate something like the immanent, reflexive theorisation that N is trying to articulate. Who would have thought, for example, that one’s sex would become political issue a few hundred years ago?

    Now I don’t want to naively claim that theory made ‘sex’ or ‘gender’ political. Woman’s suffrage predates any ‘feminist theory’ that I can think of. But this is not to say that this movement didn’t have a theoretical underpinning. What I do want to say is that it’s this theory that makes woman’s suffrage possible and, in some small part, successful.

    All this to say, then, I don’t think that the political import of theory is merely the production of analytical tools for political discourse. Such a claim would, I think reduce theory to the level of Ideology critique, pure and simple. Rather, I want to claim that theory actually constitutes the objects and practices that make politics possible — with the proviso that possibility is understood in historical, rather than transcendental terms. It’s for this reason that I wanted to emphasize both the activity or mode of theorizing and the making public of this activity, along with its results. Neither Critical thinking alone, nor a cornucopia of choices is enough. We need both. And i think theory — when done well — responds to these concerns. One example of what I have in mind is Amartya Sen’s theory of entitlements.

  3. rob September 20, 2007 at 10:08 am

    Thanks for the response, Alexei, to which I mostly say, Yes (yes)!

    I’m tempted to say that the ‘limits’ of theory, or of theory’s objects, constitute one of the problem spaces that theorists investigate. I don’t think, in other words, that there’s an a priori limit to, or specification of what theory can make public and change. Insofar as we can speak of such a limit, I think we are actually articulating a historically determined one, one which is fraught with tensions, fractures, and other ’slack spaces’ that generate something like the immanent, reflexive theorisation that N is trying to articulate.

    The above is pretty much what I mean when I say “theory may be politically transformative in relation primarily [i.e. but not exclusively] to a very specific (i.e. limited), if unstable and contestable [i.e. not a priori but historically constituted (as distinct from historically determined?)], set of “objects””.

    I think about the problem in terms of the limit between the “inside” and the “outside” of a context, which must be seen as a product, at least in part, of the institutional structures that theory works with and through and on the basis of. Consequently, that limit is likewise open to transformation, although it would be naive to think such transformation is any simple matter.

    I, too, am an idealist in the sense you’ve described. I’m also a materialist in the sense that I see “the way we think about the world” not as a general immaterial perspective or logic but rather as differential (i.e. discontinuous across varying contexts), as grounded in (to the point perhaps of having the substance of) particular techniques or practices of thinking, habits of thought and expression (e.g. regularly occurring forms of words), etc, which attach to or emerge within people (a “we”) in the form of intellectual capacities and as the mark of membership to particular communities. And that’s why I stress that theory’s transformative (hence political) effects might be felt first (as it were) in relation to “various techniques for conceptualising, arguing, analysing, etc.” — precisely, that is, insofar as it changes the way “we” think about the world (by changing the means of thinking).

    What that means, I would argue, is that “theory” is most effective when it is disseminated not as a content (a set of ideas, say) but rather as a practice (e.g. a mode of questioning). And that’s why when we speak of theory’s relation to politics in the sense of how theory might be politically transformative, I prefer to focus on the question of pedagogy rather than on the goal of making theory “public”. The latter objective still seems to dominate (to use an old-fashioned term) debates about how to make theory effective. Now, I’m not trying to say that public theorising (as it were) can’t be effective; it’s just that it constitutes only one site, and a limited one at that, in which theory may have effects. To the extent that the goal of public theorising is habitually understood as the way of making theory political, I prefer (i.e. for strategic rather than essential reasons) to point out the limits to that conception and to affirm another way of thinking about the possibilities.

    Just to clarify, none of what I say in this post or the preceding one is intended as a critique of what you’ve said, nor is it presented as though you would otherwise object to it. I suspect we are largely in agreement on these matters, and I only write what I write in the hope that it might function as a source of discursive resources for articulating in another way what you would already want to say. Indeed, it’s because you’ve given me an interesting way of articulating a certain problematic that I seek to respond in kind (to the best of my abilities).

    Cheers

  4. N Pepperell September 20, 2007 at 10:34 am

    Two very, very quick thoughts (before I stop procrastinating and get back to what I’m supposed to be doing!!).

    I like this:

    I, too, am an idealist in the sense you’ve described. I’m also a materialist in the sense that I see “the way we think about the world” not as a general immaterial perspective or logic but rather as differential (i.e. discontinuous across varying contexts), as grounded in (to the point perhaps of having the substance of) particular techniques or practices of thinking, habits of thought and expression (e.g. regularly occurring forms of words), etc, which attach to or emerge within people (a “we”) in the form of intellectual capacities and as the mark of membership to particular communities. And that’s why I stress that theory’s transformative (hence political) effects might be felt first (as it were) in relation to “various techniques for conceptualising, arguing, analysing, etc.” — precisely, that is, insofar as it changes the way “we” think about the world (by changing the means of thinking).

    I don’t tend to describe myself as an idealist, because the term can create the kind of confusion that you correct here by linking it to a kind of materialism: the confusion that what is intended is a kind of detached “thought”. In addition to the sorts of institutional spaces and practices of thinking that you mention here, I would add that new forms of perception and thought can also be suggested by shifts in forms of practice that don’t always originate in the practices or institutional settings that might be specific to particular forms of theoretical reflection: shifts, for example, in forms of very everyday “nonintellectual” practices – which can carry with them potentials for shifts in perception and thought, and can at times be a way that we unwittingly “prime” ourselves for, or become receptive to the “resonance” of, particular kinds of theoretical articulations.

    This is both cause for caution (in that new forms of theory can sometimes seem always already familiar and therefore “intuitive” for reasons that escape the self-understanding of particular theoretical approaches), as well as a source of unintentional, but potentially beneficial, collective innovation and insight – which theoretical work can then also explore, refract through its own practices and in its own institutional spaces (which may not be academic ones), deepen, and channel into more specific forms. Theory thus becomes part of a process of engaging more deliberately in the collective process of opening up (and closing off) possibilities for thought and action – but working always with materials to hand that might not be unambiguous products of the theoretical process itself…

    I very much agree with this:

    What that means, I would argue, is that “theory” is most effective when it is disseminated not as a content (a set of ideas, say) but rather as a practice (e.g. a mode of questioning).

    Although I’m increasingly struck by how very difficult this is to do: how do we overcome the inertia that tends to bring theoretical arguments back to their contents – which are often the most tentative and least important dimensions of theoretical work (or perhaps that’s just a problem with my theoretical work… ;-P).

  5. N Pepperell September 20, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    Alexei -

    Hmmm…

    Who would have thought, for example, that one’s sex would become political issue a few hundred years ago?

    Now I don’t want to naively claim that theory made ’sex’ or ‘gender’ political. Woman’s suffrage predates any ‘feminist theory’ that I can think of. But this is not to say that this movement didn’t have a theoretical underpinning. What I do want to say is that it’s this theory that makes woman’s suffrage possible and, in some small part, successful.

    Wouldn’t you see a rather complex relationship between social and intellectual history here? Without contesting the notion that theory – in the broad sense, here, of reflecting on and articulating critical ideals that will help orient action – is important (and, tacitly at least, somewhat unavoidable…) in political movements seeking transformation, these movements arise in quite complex historical circumstances, which can “prime” the likelihood of ideals being framed in particular ways, and the plausibility of the rise of particular kinds of political contestation.

    In favour of your point on theory, perhaps you may want to think a little bit harder to dislodge a few memories of some forgotten feminist theory;-) But it’s also worth remembering some of the dramatic broader social changes in the background of contestations over gender…

  6. rob September 20, 2007 at 4:31 pm

    Thanks, NP, for the supplementary remarks, with which, of course, I completely agree. Both points are extremely important, and you’re absolutely right to weave them into the discussion. (Now get back to what you’re supposed to be doing!)

    Cheers
    rob

  7. Adam Leeds September 21, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    I just came across the following quotation today, in the last paragraph of Alvin Gouldner’s extraordinarily good essay on Stalinism. It resonated with me because of my exhaustion and disgust with the number of, for instance, Comparative Literature PhD students who ponderously and prophetically pronounce on the future of violence because they think it somehow (how exactly I have no idea… makes them more marketable? assuages their guilt over the fact that writing that unreadable paragraph is *in fact* the most political thing they’ve done in three years?) improves their dissertation on Agamben and the story of the Three Little Pigs. For your enjoyment.

    “Having come this far, it would be tempting to nail down the political implications of our analysis. I shall resist that temptation. Politics too easily comes down to a firing squad in a dim basement and is, therefore, something that no one should squeeze into a bright paragraph or two to advertise his relevance.” Alvin Gouldner, 1977, “Stalinism: a study of internal colonialism”

    Any vitriol in the above deemed excessive should be understood as the result of the pot calling the kettle black. I think that I’m much less optimistic about the political possibilities of theory. I’m trying every day to decide if what I’m doing (studying) is in fact ethically acceptable, if having opted out of the social process to the extent that I have is something that I can live with, if the paltry political possibilities that seem to remain to me are in fact enough.

  8. rob September 21, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    That’s a great passage, Adam. Both humorous and horrifying. It’s a reminder that “politics” takes many forms and serves to stress that any defence (such as ours above) of the very limited potential for “theory” to have some political effect is always at the same time an insistence that theory is ineffectual in relation to many other forms or instances of “politics” (or violence, injustice and disaster generally).

    Cheers

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: