Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

So My Laptop Died…

exploded Dell laptop Well, it didn’t die quite this dramatically – it’s been more a process of slow decline, which reached a certain point of perfection the evening before we presented in Tassie, where the machine simply refused to recharge any more. It adds an interesting, examination-like intensity to conference presentations, knowing that the only tweaks you can make to your talk, must be made within the remaining 90 minutes of your current battery life. It’s entirely possible the laptop gremlins had my best interests in mind – certainly my dead laptop ensured that I got far more sleep, the evening before the presentation, than I think L Magee was able to rationalise with a fully-functional laptop at his disposal.

In any event, traveling back to Melbourne, I had high hopes that the problem would be something simple and inexpensive – maybe the power supply or battery. But no, it’s major – of the sort that it makes more sense to purchase something new, and thus of the sort that causes one to spend an entire evening researching what new toys have come on the market in the intervening years since one has last shopped for a laptop. I think I’ve found what I’m after, and will of course now spend the morning calling around to various places, clarifying ambiguities in specs and such and, if this is successful, no doubt spend the better part of the next couple of days configuring the new machine so that it’s ritualistically prepared for this summer of intensive dissertation writing. I lost no data in the demise of the old laptop, so this is more an opportunity to prune: what from that old machine really needs to be reincarnated in the new?

All of this is by way of saying that my online time has been and will continue to be somewhat limited over the next few days. My backup desktop at the university – a default machine that I inherited with my current office – is bolted to a desk in a position that sits very far back from where I have to sit to type on it, placing the screen an uncomfortable distance from my near-sighted self. And anyone who tried to read along with my response to Andrew Montin’s question yesterday, will also realise that the desktop’s keyboard is prone (at least, when confronting my laptop-conditioned typing reflexes) to duplicating some letters, while omitting others (trust me, I caught far more of these than made their way through to the published comment).

I’d like to write something following up on Andrew’s questions, looking into Brandom’s critique of “I-we” conceptions of the social, his references to history, his appeals to “the theorist” at key points in his argument – and, basically, open up the question of how immanent and reflexive Brandom can actually be seen to be. These were originally the sorts of points with which I had thought of concluding the ASCP presentation, and which, rightly or wrongly, I cut for purposes of time, but which I’d like to raise for discussion here. Andrew has opened these questions himself [er... perhaps I should say: Andrew has asked questions which have reminded me of these questions - perhaps not quite the same thing - certainly from Andrew's point of view... ;-P], which hopefully suggests we were on the right track, in at least a rough sense, in wanting to raise these issues, in tandem with the vexed question of how Brandom understands “objectivity” and the notion of how our discursive practice opens the space for our “accountability” to dimensions of the world that do not depend on our perception or acknowledgment for their existence. I may wait, though, to write on these things, until I have a keyboard that doesn’t make me feel like I’m stuttering. (Of course, the new laptop keyboard may have its own issues – I therefore hereby blame all errors in my posts for the next several months – the conceptual, as well as the typographical – on whatever machine I happen to be purchasing to replace my sadly-defunct Dell…)

[Note: Image @2006 The Age, URL:,0.jpg%5D

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5 responses to “So My Laptop Died…

  1. Andy Blunden December 11, 2007 at 12:48 pm

    In my presentation I reported that Hegel lists three paradigmatic activities using three correspondingly paradigmatic types of artefact through which the individual constructs the universal, viz., using tools (labour in the narrow sense, using means of production), using words (the tools of reason, i.e., the entirety of symbolic culture) and raising children (what I called “succession planning,” and remember the debate about Hegel and death, in July).
    BTW, Honneth wrongly lists this third as building the family capital, quite a different thing. He doesn’t understand because he erases mediation, and probably minimises the social role of the raising of children as well.
    NB for me “paradigmatic” types, not categories or classes. The idea of dividing activities and artefacts up into categories is un-useful. The same as with the three corresponding Peircean signs: index, symbol and icon. We are interested in how using these artefacts constructs Mind.
    So in your talk, you pointed out that for Habermas there are three “Realms of Practical Activity”:
    1. Aesthetic action, oriented to the self, with the criterion of authenticity.
    2. Instrumental action, oriented to an object, with the criterion of truth.
    3. Communicative action, oriented to other subjects, with the criterion of the good.
    This is clearly the same triplicity. I didn’t know about Habermas having 1., so I criticised Habermas for a flip from Marx’s emphasis on labour to an emphasis on communication, corresponding of course to the spirit of the times. But this sheds new light on the matter. I would now make the following comment.
    a. Like Honneth, Habermas begins with individuals – prisoners in cells who contrive to send messages to one another, whereas Hegel has subjects. Bringing the two versions of #1 together is interesting. For me “raising children” meant taking everything that is aimed at reproducing one’s project and raising it from a particular into a universal (just as I am doing with the Hegel Summer School, which is now not the particular project of an individual but a universal in its own right, which people can join or not and take it where they like, according to the demands of the times). But introducing the notion of “authenticity” into that sheds a great light on the criteria of a project, and vice versa.
    b. I insist on “paradigmatic” not “realms” or “domains” or “categories” (same with Peirce’s signs) because the point is to mark out an entirety, not to divide up what is given into compartments, and then to get involved in boundary disputes. So for example, I find most people who look at activity semiotically miss the raising of children and succession planning generally as a semiotic activity. You are either communicating or labouring. Also, without #1, the issue becomes one of counterposing instrumental to communicative action, whereas the fields utterly interpenetrate. Labour is communicative, communication is work, and all of them are tied up in one way or another with what I call “Reproductive Action.”
    c. Habermas erases mediation. I have written on Habermas’s erasure of mediation at length on my home page. It is the root of all sorts of absurdities in his philosophy. Since all activity is in fact mediated, the mediating artefacts, instead of being understood as the universal and aim of the whole thing, are reduced to being “resources” subsumed into the “landscape” and ignored, or subsumed into the actors themselves, who are then subject to a critique of essentialism.
    What do you think?
    Andy Blunden
    PS. my talk is available in audio at

  2. N Pepperell December 11, 2007 at 1:06 pm

    Hey Andy – Just letting you know that I’m running at the moment, and also apologising that you were caught in the moderation queue: it shouldn’t happen for subsequent posts. I’ve just acquried a shiny new laptop, and will be better able to post once I’ve gotten that up and running – which should hopefully be by tomorrow. More soon!

  3. N Pepperell December 12, 2007 at 9:25 am

    On the issue of the aesthetic in Habermas: I don’t think that it’s unfair to criticise him, in the sense that it’s an extremely underdeveloped aspect of his work – it’s fairly common to note that Habermas really deviates from much of the Frankfurt tradition in his lack of interest toward the aesthetic, and I don’t want to suggest that those criticisms are unwarranted.

    I can also understand why someone would offer the sort of critique that was expressed in the paper prior to ours at the conference, where they were looking at how Habermas holds scientific and moral discourses up to certain specific standards of public accountability, but not holding aesthetic discourse up to similar standards – and they then drew the conclusion that he was intending a sort of “expel the poets from the Republic” position – that he simply believes, as the presenter put it, that art is irresponsible or somehow not serious. I do understand how Habermas might suggest this – it’s just that I tend to prefer to read theorists at their strongest, if I can, and, on a generous read of what he does in Theory of Communicative Action, what Habermas is instead suggesting is that there are different normative frameworks and different immanent logics that should be developed on their own terms, such that holding art, for example, to the standards Habermas thinks are appropriate to moral or scientific discourse, would actually be a violation or an abridgement of the potential of art – and, conversely, imposing aestheticised elements into scientific or moral discourse also abridges the potentials of those realms.

    There’s still a great deal to be criticised in this – it may not be quite the same position that was held up for criticism at the conference, but it’s still a position that tries to put, and keep, various forms of practice “in their place” – and therefore may, for example, deny art a public, interventionist significance that perhaps it rightly holds, etc. I also tend to think that these sorts of distinctions are extremely difficult to defend “on the ground” in any meaningful way. So I think there’s still a great deal that can be opened for criticism – I’m just trying to situate the critique on its most productive terrain, where it hits the theory at a strong point, rather than a weak one.

    On your other points about whether Habermas starts with individuals, omits mediations, etc. – it’s complicated. I’ve criticised Habermas for presenting a form of argument that, much like political economy, thinks of itself (tacitly) as the historical realisation of the natural – so, basically, I agree that there’s an essentialisation happening, although I think the kind of essentialisation is fairly complex and not necessarily easy to demonstrate. I’ve tended to go about it by talking about possibilities to explain the same sorts of phenomena that interest Habermas, but in a way that takes more seriously the contingent character of these phenomena – and that therefore understands them as the products of human practices in a stronger sense than Habermas (I think) wants them to be. This line of argument may connect up with some of the things you are saying above – I’d need to know more to be sure.

    Habermas, for his part, would probably think me a relativist :-) I don’t think I am, but I do tend to ground my normative ideals in a less essentialised space – finding them in contrasting potentials in the sorts of relationships constituted by human practice (which would probably be my way of expressing the concept of mediation), rather than in functional or ontological/essential terms. Not sure if this gives a clear enough sense of where I sit, but perhaps it’s enough for a beginning.

  4. Nate December 12, 2007 at 11:47 am

    Sorry to hear about yr laptop!

  5. Andy Blunden December 12, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    That’s a good response Nicole. You should send it on to Anne Freadman. I don’t think my charge against Habermas is one of Essentialism, though I can see where you get that from. There is a difference between saying (Kantian) “subjects” are shaped by their social experiences, and, individuals participate in subjectivity in the way Hegel describes. It is not just a question of the origin of an individual’s character, but the very nature of their existence.

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