Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Matter with Form

Apologies for the recent silence on the blog – I’ve been preoccupied with offline things, and blogging will unfortunately remain slow for a bit. I did want to point to a very nice recent post over at Larval Subjects, on “Social Multiplicities and Agency”. This post continues Sinthome’s recent reflections on the problem of how to thematise agency, asking whether the starting assumptions of much social and political theory – assumptions manifest, in particular, in a form/matter dichotomy – drive theory to oscillate between antinomic poles of abstract structure and agency:

At the heart of what I will call the “Althusserian model”, is the old Aristotlean conception of individuation based on the distinction between form and matter. While Althusser’s social structures are historical in the sense that they come to be and pass away and are thus unlike Aristotle’s forms which are eternal and unchanging, social structure is nonetheless conceived as forms imposed on passive matters, giving these passive matters their particular form or structure. The passive matters in question, of course, are human individuals. I am formed by social structures tout court and without remainder. In response to this conception– and I realize that I am unfairly simplifying matters –we should ask if this is an accurate conception of either agency or the social. Does not Althusser and other structuralist inspired Marxists severely simplify both social dynamics and the social itself? When Badiou speaks of the “state of the situation” “counting-multiplicities as one”, has he not severely simplified how the social is in fact organized, creating the illusion that there’s a monolithic structure at work in social formations? Do not Lacanians and Zizekians severely simplify the social by reading all social phenomena through the lens of the symbolic and formations of sovereignity (Lacan’s masculine sexuation)? Perhaps, in these simplifications, we create the very problems we’re trying to solve and end up tilting against monsters of our own creation.

Sinthome reaches for new metaphors for thinking the social, and finds productive resonance with certain themes in evolutionary theory, which provide tools for thinking, not the reduction of the social to the natural, but rather a more complex and multilayered conception of the social:

To draw the parallel to Althusser and similarly minded theorists– emphasizing once again that I am not seeking to apply natural selection to social formations, but to think the organization and levels of social formations –where the Althusserian form/matter social model postulates two thing (social structure and individuals), where one thing, the social formation, hierarchically imposes form on another (individuals), Gould’s model envisions a number of different levels in which distinct processes take place. As Gould goes on to say, “…[A]djacent levels my interact in the full range of conceivable ways– in synergy, orthogonally, or in opposition” (73). That is, among the different levels processes taking place can reinforce one another, they can be independent of one another, or they can be in conflict or opposition with one another. Were such a nuanced and multi-leveled conception of the biological carried over into social theory, we would no longer engage in endless hand-wringing as to whether or not agency is possible, nor would we need to postulate theoretical monsters like the Lacanian subject or subjects of truth-procedures. If such moves would no longer be necessary, then this is because we would no longer postulate hierarchical and hegemonic relations among the various strata or levels of social formations. Instead, we would engage in an analysis of these various levels and strata, examining the relations of feedback (positive and negative) that function within them, their relations of synergy, orthogonality, and antagonism, and the various potentials that inhabit these relations. Here we would need to look at the variety of different social formations from individuals, to small associations like groups (the blog collective for instance), to larger groupings and institutions, to global interrelations, treating none of these as hegemonizing all the others, but instead discerning their varying temporalities, organizations, inter-relations, points of antagonism, and so on. This, I think, is far closer to Marx’s own vision– or at least the spirit of his analyses in texts like Grundrisse and Capital.

I agree with this characterisation of Marx’s work – my discussion in the recent HSS paper of how Marx uses the concept of “inversion”, gestures at how I would begin to develop this position. I hope to be able to spend much more time on how this kind of analysis plays out concretely in Capital, in the coming months.

Sinthome’s post also resonates with the recent discussion of Diane Elson’s work (here and here), in which I was exploring Elson’s take on the concept of “determination” in Marx’s work. Much as Sinthome mines concepts used to think evolution, Elson deploys metaphors from chemistry to try to move beyond thinking of structure as something that subsists separately to, and exists in an external causal relationship with, what is structured.

All of these discussions remind me again of one of my favourite characterisations of Marx’s work, from Paul Lafargue’s Reminiscences of Marx:

He saw not only the surface, but what lay beneath it. He examined all the constituent parts in their mutual action and reaction; he isolated each of those parts and traced the history of its development. Then he went on from the thing to its surroundings and observed the reaction of one upon the other. He traced the origin of the object, the changes, evolutions and revolutions it went through, and proceeded finally to its remotest effects. He did not see a thing singly, in itself and for itself, separate from its surroundings: he saw a highly complicated world in continual motion.

His intention was to disclose the whole of that world in its manifold and continually varying action and reaction.

Compare with Sinthome’s lovely description of:

capitalism as a heterogeneous multiplicity with a variety of different levels, often at odds with itself, spinning off in a variety of different directions, calling for nuanced and local analyses and strategies

Apologies for the associative character of this post – systematicity eludes me at the moment… ;-) Much more on these themes in Sinthome’s original post.

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One response to “The Matter with Form

  1. Pingback: Chemistry, Cooking, and Non-Linear Causality « Larval Subjects .

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