Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Conversations on History, Memory, and Agency

A very nice cross-blog discussion on conceptualising agency has been underway for some days now, spiralling out from Sinthome’s original post on Scene and Act (readers from here might be amused at the thesis precis I seem to have decided to write in the comments over there – I appreciate Sinthome’s patience with the rather extended off-the-cuff reflections I’ve posted on my project in the comments at his site). The related post over here led to a nice conversation in the comments – which raises, amongst other topics, the loose coupling of agents with contexts, due both to the porousness of context and the selectivity of agents. Sinthome has now picked up on some of themes in a new post over at Larval Subjects, which has in turn drawn an extended response from Wildly Parenthetical. What I wanted to try to to here was to pick up on some elements of both of these most recent responses – with the caveat that it’s been an exhausting day, and so this may end up being more of a pointer to interesting discussions elsewhere, than a substantive contribution.

Both of the new posts in the discussion express a level of uncertainty over how to think the possibility for agency – understood in this discussion, in terms of the possibility for the introduction of something new and unanticipated into a situation – with the tools provided by the theorists who provide major reference points for each interlocutor – Deleuze, for Sinthome, and Merleau-Ponty, for Wildly.

Sinthome, concerned with questions of individuation, begins by drawing out a tension that arises in Deleuze’s work. On the one hand, Deleuze provides powerful tools for thinking about individuation as a process intrinsically connected to a certain milieu – thus avoiding the perils of abstraction (which Sinthome, following Hegel, understands in terms of severing an entity from the relational network that constitutes that entity). This approach, however, leaves uncertain how agency might be thought, risking a determinism in which an agent is conceptualised as nothing more than an actualisation of potentials of a pre-personal field not of its own making. Such a determinism, however, sits in tension with the evidently critical impetus of Deleuze’s thought – with his avowed criticism of philosophies of identity, and his preference for philosophies of difference. Sinthome wonders whether a performative contradiction or tension might lie between what Deleuze says and what he does – as Sinthome expresses this:

Supposing that for Deleuze it is the intensive differences that compose being that are doing all the work (what Deleuze refers to as intensities, inequalities, or asymmetries in Difference and Repetition), there is a curious contradiction between Deleuze’s account of the nature of being and individuation, and what Deleuze actually does. On the one hand, Deleuze gives us an ontological vision of being as composed of pre-personal, asymmetrical intensive differences resolving themselves in the form of the actual entities we see in the world around us. There is no centralized control here, no plan, no goal, etc. Here we are actualizations of the intensive differences into which we’re thrown and develop and our thoughts are the epiphenomena of these processes (like Freud’s differential unconscious where there is no centralized homunculus controlling thought, but rather just a play of energetic differentials producing thought).

Yet on the other hand, Deleuze, at various points, expresses a preference for difference over recognition and identity, for the nomadic over the sedentary, for the anarchic over the state. That is, for Deleuze, philosophy is guilty of having chosen models of recognition, identity, the sedentary, and the state, and the philosopher of difference is exhorted to choose difference, nomadism, and the anarchic (literally the “without principle”). Yet if we are patients of our thought rather than agents of our thought, how can there be any question of choosing one way or another? If I am a thinker like Kant, wouldn’t I simply be actualized in such a way as to model phenomena in terms of recognition, identity, the sedentary, and the state? Wouldn’t this decision be out of my hands? My point is this: The presence of these judgments and decisions in Deleuze’s thought, at odds as it is without what looks like an ontology that would prohibit these sorts of decisions, indicates that his philosophy is haunted by an agent or agency even if this agent or agency isn’t itself explicitly theorized. The question would be one of rendering such a conception of agency explicit in an ontology that is otherwise so scenic in its orientation.

I should stress that Sinthome is cautious on the specific question of whether Deleuze might square this circle at some point in his work – the object of this post is rather to use this discussion of Deleuze to open the problem of how to think agency within relational philosophy. Sinthome does this by first sketching how a similar problem arises in sociological attempts to correct for abstracted forms of individualism, by drawing attention to conditions not of individual’s choosing, which are then viewed as leading to individual behaviour. Such approaches pose the question of how it becomes possible to think beyond the sociological “scene” in which we are all embedded – and the potential paradox of the sociologist who appears to abstract themselves from the very scene to which they are drawing attention. Sinthome riffs on an expression of Luhmann’s to underscore the point:

As Luhmann liked to say “we cannot see what we cannot see”. And what we see least of all is the place from which we see.

A solution, Sinthome suggests, may require thinking through what he calls the “circumference” of the “scene” – the boundaries of the context through which the agent is individuated. Sinthome draws particular attention here to the temporal boundaries of the field of individuation – to the ways in which our “context” is not a perpetually synchronic, bounded instant, but instead riddled through with strands linking us to other times, due to potentials sedimented in memory, language, and archives that offer avenues for individuation not easily located in a single “context” as conventionally understood. While our receptivity to these potentials is of course also mediated through our individuation in some particular present, the particular cross-connections that our present develops with some specific past are not solely and purely determined by the present. Sinthome seems to point here to something that reminds me of a Benjaminian constellation:

Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history. But no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it were, though events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time.

This line of thought reminds me that I need to develop much more the peculiar way in which I take capitalism to sediment and reproduce particular pasts, while also encouraging particular orientations to history – I mention this here only as a placeholder to myself, and as a supplement, not a corrective, to the suggestions Sinthome makes in his post. In the discussion Sinthome and I were having here, before he pulled his points together into this post, I had also suggested that “circumference” can be thought within a context – particularly when context is not conceptualised as some sort of qualitatively uniform substance or (to take the old-fashioned term still current in some of the foundational sociology I periodically foist on the reading group ;-P) “spirit” of a time, but where context itself is viewed as process and as constellation – and therefore as intrinsically presenting those individuated within it with a multiplicity of forms of individuation, in which different moments of the “same” context can open radically different possibilities, providing experiential exposure to conflictual potentials. I plan to develop these points in greater detail, if I can manage to lay the theoretical groundwork adequately through the work I’m doing on Marx. None of this, however, deflects the claim Sinthome is making: that our experiential reach is not circumscribed by some temporal boundary that cordons off and hermetically seals our own time from others – and that aleatory or, for that matter, conditioned reaches across time can react back in substantive ways on our own historical moment. Sinthome brings these points back to Deleuze in his concluding reflections:

As Deleuze will say, all of my loves are a repetition of that love that was never present. Here there is an amorous attachment, a trace memory, that perpetually interferes with the determinative factors of the successive and simultaneous, guaranteeing that I am never quite in or of my time.

It would seem then that the place to look for something like agency in Deleuze would be in these temporal facts, in his discussions of repetition (especially the second psychoanalytic account of repetition in chapter two of Difference and Repetition), where Deleuze shows how the mnemonic is a condition for the spiritual. Perhaps here, in these amorous attachments and identifications we begin to see something like the possibility of an agency within an immanent field of individuations.

Wildly, though uncomfortable with the vocabulary of “agency”, pursues a parallel set of concerns with reference to the possibility for the development of a subject, and the concept of “sedimentation” in Merleau-Ponty. Focussing on developing terms that grasp an embodied subjectivity, Wildly discusses the ways in which our experiences carve grooves or paths of least resistance into which our future experiences then also tend to be channelled by default. The question for Wildly then becomes how the perception or experience of otherness becomes possible, once “sedimentation” is posited to operate in terms of the metaphor of ever-deepening channels into which new experience falls – if “what I can see is shaped by what I have already seen”. Wildly both notes, and criticises, Butler’s suggestion that the subject can never reproduce perfectly, arguing that Butler’s approach reinforces an individualistic concept of agency that itself requires contestation. Wildly’s real concern, however, is the tacit universalism of the notion of sedimentation itself: the underlying model of uniform modes of embodiment that seems to figure as an abstract negation – as something not itself a positive or contestable form of embodiment, but simply a sort of “shell” or empty form into which positive contents fall. “Sedimentation” functions here as natural – as a fate – and what then varies is only what particular content comes to be sedimented. Is there some way, Wildly asks, to think of this form – of sedimentation itself – as something contestable? In her own words:

The problem with conceptualising of subjectivity as a product of such sedimentation is that it creates little space for movement: if the only way that an experience is permitted to matter (to the embodied subject) is through the filter of what has already occurred, then difference as difference won’t be perceived. It can’t be, for we have no way to see what we have not already seen. The new other that I encounter thus remains comprehensible insofar as he or she is understood as ‘like’ what I have seen before. That which exceeds that graspability doesn’t, on this conception of the embodied subject, even figure for me.

In other words, we wind up with something totalising here, if we trust that the very nature of the body is one that shapes itself through sedimentation.

Wildly suggests that the notion of sedimentation, in spite of its best intentions and its political mobilisation in the service of certain kinds of denaturalisation, might itself naturalise something quite pivotal, covering over the possibility of a more shattering and disruptive experience of otherness – something that might alter the default sedimentary “frame” that otherwise shapes and normalises new experiences in the mould of the old. Wildly holds out the possibility for a more anarchic type of encounter, one that “offers me an elsewise, another way to be… a way of being in the world unlike what has been, and unlike any other…” Something in light of which the tacit positivity of the sedimentary body can be revealed, not as a neutral form into which specific contents are deposited in time, but as itself a contentful structure – not a neutral or natural fate that must befall us, but only something experienced as natural until disrupted by the possibility for another way of being in the world.

Wildly will know that I have a weakness for arguments that reposition forms as contents ;-) I’ll be writing more in the weeks to come on the discussion of “physiological labour” in Capital, which will loop back to these concerns in a very indirect and distant way. Lots of room here for further discussion and elaboration.

The summaries above do justice to neither post – readers should look at the originals. And apologies to Sinthome and Wildly if I haven’t adequately captured what you were each trying to say, and also apologies that I’ve found so little to add – my main reaction to both posts is that I need to take up these issues in work I have underway, and so the impact of these posts on me will likely not be visible until I work the concepts up into more formal writing.

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7 responses to “Conversations on History, Memory, and Agency

  1. WildlyParenthetical February 6, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    Ah, I feel so misrepresented! ;-) No, not at all. A worryingly good summary, in fact, given that I ranted fairly incoherently in the post itself!

    I am struck, however, but an amusing point about a lot of philosophy: the more strongly it tries to systematise, the more it is troubled by the very result, in its tendency to deny a space of newness. I feel like I ought to read Arendt on natality somewhere in here—my only real experience of this concept has been via others, but as I understand it, there’s something about things being recognised and experienced as new, about that, in fact, being the really significant point, rather than their uniqueness (if that makes sense). Of course, none of this really responds directly to *this* post (except to point out yet another theorist also concerned with this ;-P) so feel free to ignore :-)

  2. N Pepperell February 6, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    Wanting to differentiate essence and appearance again? ;-P

    I’ve tended to read Marx as very specific about, in a sense, it being distinctive that something could adequately be grasped systematically – not to argue that nothing other than the reproduction of capital has “systematic” properties, but that the theory is, in some sense, expressive of its object, such that it is the “real” or practically generated abstractions within capitalism, that must be expressed abstractly. Some of those abstractions, in Marx, then carry critical potentials – they “denaturalise” things in useful ways, as long as we don’t fall into the temptation of naturalising the forms of denaturalisation themselves… ;-)

    (Apologies if this makes no sense – very tired this afternoon – too little sleep last night!! I’m sure this comes as a great surprise… ;-P)

  3. WildlyParenthetical February 6, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    Oh, a thorough :-P to you, Ms Pepperell!! ;-) I do believe you reiterated precisely such a distinction in your anxiety… which is intriguing, though unsurprising. It’s hard to negotiate these matters without return to claims about what one ‘really meant': intention as essence etc etc… Idealist misconstruction, I suspect, of communication, at base, but a hard one to shift in everyday language… ;-)

    Yeah, no, I get that it can be grasped systematically in some sense, but of course as always escaping the totalising system (capitalism) that supposes itself as such. In some sense, I guess I think of the kinda systematic-non-system of deconstruction. Derrida’s approach is in some sense systematic – it’s finely attuned to how and why and where the symbolic (or exchange economy, or…) produces that which exceeds it; an understanding of these resonant gestures makes reading his work a lot easier (having attempted it as a little undergrad and flailed around like a crazy person before working out this approach). But again, Derrida’s approach is also always altered by its engagement with each ‘topic.’

    But of course, this isn’t the kind of reflexive systematicity I’m really evoking here; it’s the systematicity that presumes itself adequate in advance to every moment, and then is troubled by its own totalising gestures which ensure it cannot see such troublingness.

    And now I can’t recall precisely why I thought this significant, so I’m going to go away and try and make Merleau-Ponty make sense of time for me… and sympathies of the most sympathetically guilty kind for lack of sleep!

  4. N Pepperell February 7, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    I do believe you reiterated precisely such a distinction in your anxiety…

    You’re assuming that I think my content would have been any better than my form… ;-P

    But no – sorry: I hadn’t taken you to be encompassing Marx in what you had written above – I was just thinking through the issue myself – as in, reminding myself of a thread about “no abstract negations of abstract negations” ;-P – just part of the real abstraction issue I’ve been obsessing about in recent writing.

    Still sleepy, though… ;-P

  5. Joseph Kugelmass February 9, 2008 at 8:10 am

    If I may, a little Adornian anxiety. This is what I wrote in the old “McLovin” sexuality post:

    On a larger scale, everyone knows exactly what they want: an entirely new life. So Dale Carnegie proclaims: “I’m talking about a new way of life” (27). On the new VH1 show The Pick-Up Artist, Neil Strauss’s friend Mystery tells his disciples, “This is about building a life.” (All competitive reality shows, and all makeover-style reality shows, are based on this craving for a new life via deus ex machina.) But on the small scale, product by product, interaction by interaction, there is no new life. There is a promise, a glimpse: enough of an interruption of normal life that the world stands still. That’s the soul of the advertisement.

    I mean, of course “sedimentation” in Merleau-Ponty is more or less borrowed from Bergson and Proust, and of course a novelist like Proust will yearn with all his soul for real newness, and the cleansing, shattering break with the familiar. He longs for it just as sincerely as he longs for comfort and repetition — most famously, the repetition of the madeleine.

    But at the same time, we live in a society where novelty is packaged and sold; we certainly have no way to be sure that people who (for example) live a highly sedimentary, rural life want to be broken free, like an action figure pried out of its plastic casing.

    In other words, this desire to break free has both a cyclic and erotic component to it, and a disturbing potential to be satisfied by simulated breaks. It’s not that there isn’t real revolutionary potential here, but rather that the figures of the cleansing flood or sideways displacement that underlie the notion of the “elsewise” seem, to me at least, to risk substitutive satisfaction more than a Benjaminian re-constellating — the same, but summed differently, transfigured. And this is also a way out of the oneupmanship of otherness — the sense, in writers like Derrida, that one is trying to be still more other than what you thought was other. We’re talking really other!

  6. Joseph Kugelmass February 9, 2008 at 10:37 am

    Oh, also, perhaps this has already been covered, but there are wonderful anticipations, in Merleau-Ponty et al, of what would later be called “neural pathways,” and which do, in fact, consolidate themselves over time and through repetition. So this is one case where the overused bridges between cognitive science and phenomenology might potentially be useful in understanding the challenges at hand.

  7. N Pepperell February 9, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Hey Joe – Interestingly, IndieFaith made a somewhat similar comment on neuroscience in one of the related threads over at Larval Subjects – I picked up on the issue in my response over there – although the point wasn’t quite the same: IF was raising the issue of how conscious desires for transformation (or anything else) might arise first in what we do, and therefore be derivative of practice, which is a position I see as consonant with Marx’s approach, and also with a sort of contextualised, immanently-generated potential for agency that has tended to interest me. That said, I also tend to use Marx to get some critical purchase on what Marx would sometimes call “naive materialism” – the sort of assumptions or presuppositions that underlie the materialism of the natural sciences (which Marx would regard as itself “unscientific” in the Hegelian sense that it treats its materialist assumptions as “givens”) – but this is a complex issue I didn’t go into in my comment at Larval Subjects.

    I’m a bit reluctant to address your Adornian concerns on Wildly and Sinthome’s behalf, since I’m ventriloquising in the post, and so, from their point of view, this sort of problem might arise due to how I’ve represented them, or they might reject the concern on some other basis – I don’t want to risk further misrepresentation of their position :-) My impulse is to read both of them as not reaching for the sort of… apocalyptic break that worries you, but this is the sort of territory where it’s better to let them speak for themselves.

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