Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Practice of Theory

Where do memes come from? Am I allowed to make one? Tom Bunyard from Monagyric has asked me a question down in the comments that I thought might be worth transposing up here, and passing around. Tom writes:

John’s organised a kind of series of self-critique things for the Goldsmiths Centre for Cultural Studies, and after having been volunteered I’m due to speak myself. I was thinking about saying something around the innate silliness of playing around with arch theoretical models of political emancipation whilst in academia, and thus whilst fundamentally divorced from real praxis (which pretty much defines what I do). At the last session someone had made a comment about theory and practice; whilst the practice that he had in mind was militant struggle, it was quickly interpreted by the culture industry types in the room as a problematic of getting their work identified by the advertising industry so as to secure a career. The distinction between the two notions of practice seemed to define the afternoon for me. I think I want to talk about the limits, flaws and general farce of doing ‘radical’ lefty theory within the academy, particularly in relation to my own attempts to write a PhD that only three people in the world are ever likely to read.

Consequently I’m interested in speaking to a few people as to how they figure the relation of their own political research/writing/whatever to practice; whether they view it (after Adorno) as a kind of practice itself; and to what extent they view this separation (assuming there is a separation) to be problematic. So, as someone working on Marx, how would you respond?

I’ll reproduce my response up here in a moment, but I want to see whether I might be able to turn this into a meme. I’d be interested if the following folks would be interested in answering Tom’s question, and then passing the question on to a few friends. It doesn’t have to be restricted to folks who work on Marx. The core question, as I see it, is:

How do you understand the relation of your own political research/writing/whatever to political practice; whether you view it as a kind of political practice itself; and to what extent you view the separation (assuming there is a separation) between your work and political struggle to be problematic?

I am uncomfortable requiring anyone to link back to this post if you do reply but, if you do, I can create an archive of the responses.

I tag Nate (because we’ve discussed these things before), Lumpenprofessoriat (because turnabout is fair play), Larval Subjects (because I think you will find the tag irritating and probably won’t respond), Trinketization (since it might be useful to have a response from someone who would be at the actual event), Now-Times (with a particular interest in how you might feel about the “after Adorno” aspect of the original question), and Scandalum Magnatum (as I link to your site far less often than I intend). Anyone else who feels inclined to respond is more than welcome.

My own response, lifted up from the comments, was:

First: I’m anti-idealist in perhaps a more extreme sense than many people: I think it’s a mistake to regard the concepts that academics come up with, as though those concepts aren’t related in some way to other sorts of collective practices that are unfolding at the same moment in time. This doesn’t mean that what academics do is “praxis” in some sense of direct contribution to achieving political ends – that is something that would need to be evaluated in a less abstract way. It just means that it’s not going to be “accidental”, that certain forms of theory are trending when they are, and that the tacit sensibilities that find expression in academic theory can be analysed, just as can the tacit sensibilities that find expression in any other form of human activity, as one among many clues to the possibilities we are collectively constituting at a particular moment in time. To stress: I am not suggesting that some sort of special possibility is constituted through academic work – I am suggesting that humans tends to think with our practices in a very broad sense, academics like everyone else, and so even apparently very abstract and removed forms of thought are quite likely to express something that has shifted in much more everyday forms of practice. Grasping that link – which is a lot of what I think Marx does with his critiques of various sorts of formal theory – then makes it possible to analyse the sorts of tacit practical possibilities that are finding nascent expression in various types of formal theory, political ideals, popular culture, etc.

On the more specific issue of whether some sort of formal theory makes a contribution to some particular political project: again, I don’t think this sort of question can be answered abstractly in a meaningful way. I do think that capitalism as a target of political practice, or as an object of analysis, has very peculiar “ontological” characteristics, that are very difficult to grasp without engaging “theoretically” with this object. I think political action in a dynamic social context is difficult, that it’s extremely easy for unanticipated consequences to follow on our actions, and therefore that movements increase their chances of achieving their ends, if they have a good sense of how history might bite them in the butt. This is what I think theory is “for” in a political sense – improving the odds of grasping whether particular sorts of actions are likely to have the results we hope they will. Theory helps us try to deal with the problem William Morris sketches out:

I pondered all these things… how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name…

It helps us work out the name of what we are fighting for, so that other people don’t have to perpetually keep coming along behind us, setting up new struggles to achieve what we meant, but didn’t know how to fight for last time around. At least, this would be my normative criterion for what a good theory would do.

To put the same thing more briefly: if we make history, but not in conditions of our own choosing, then it can be helpful to learn as much as we can about those conditions we haven’t chosen, so that we have as good a sense as possible of the sort of history we might be able to make.

This says nothing about whether some particular kind of theory, in some specific institutional setting, is actually helpful for this end. There will always be at least a tacit theory underlying any form of practice – formal types of theory tease out and make explicit what is tacit in what we are already doing. This process of making the implications of our own practice explicit to ourselves isn’t limited to academia, but it isn’t necessarily barred to academia either. Farce isn’t limited to academia either… ;-) And there is a form of idealism, to me, nascent in the idea that real life is somewhere “out there”: Marx’s position is that humans, in a sense, aren’t that clever – we aren’t that original or creative in our thoughts – our thoughts are already “material” – our categories are things we do. He spends a lot of time showing that the same sorts of sensibilities that are cropping up in more “academic” forms of theory are sensibilities that are also being enacted in settings that take themselves far less seriously – showing that academic thought mobilises very similar sorts of perceptions and thoughts as those mobilised in the marketplace.

His strategy undermines academic pretension – but it also undermines romantic notions that there is some special sort of institutional setting where “real thought” can happen because that setting is somehow less divorced from “real life”: humans, for Marx, generate new possibilities collectively, initially in mundane actions – and largely, in the first instance at least, unintentionally. Explicit theory and conscious political practice then fumbles along behind, trying to work out and realise the potentials opened up by our collective accidents. Where this happens, what sorts of practices and institutional settings are associated with doing it in a way that is potentially transformative – all of this strikes me as a case-by-case thing…

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11 responses to “The Practice of Theory

  1. rob May 16, 2008 at 11:41 am

    How many times, I wonder, have I encountered and engaged with this question, or with related questions, in the two short years that I’ve dipped in and out of academic blogs?

    This is perhaps a question for your reflexive immanent critique, NP: how is it that the above question becomes not just an obvious, not just an apparently important, but a seemingly lethal question to ask of “theory” or of academic practice more generally (by which is meant, nevertheless, very specific forms of conceptually-based or non-empirically-based forms of academic practice)?

    No offence or disrespect to Tom intended, since I’m not trying to suggest that his is not a question that needs to be asked (or that there aren’t certain contexts in which the question needs to be asked). But the regularity of the statement, as it were, may itself warrant investigation…

  2. Tom Bunyard May 16, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    Yup, fair point there Rob.

    Thanks for this N, and thank your for your comments; I’ll do a proper response later when I have a little more time.



  3. lisa May 17, 2008 at 10:25 pm

    I’m mainly just responding to the question, how do I figure the relation of my own political research/writing/whatever to practice? I am focusing therefore on what I see as a relationship between theory and practice, a question I’m really grappling with at the moment, as someone who’s turned to PhD study.

    Personally, I don’t think I’ll ever really resolve the theory-practice relationship/problem. This is partly because I feel very uneasy with the separation, even though we are constantly called upon to make it; and partly because as a socialist activist, the question can’t be resolved for me politically until there is a completely different kind of society, at least post-capitalist. This is unlikely in my lifetime.

    I see myself as activist first and theorist second (there… the separation again). What I mean is that, I am only a theorist in so far as it helps me to understand why I’m an activist; and also where our political, social and labour movements have gone wrong. The day I feel comfortable with the world around me is the day I stop bothering with research – well, except for some general curiosity I guess. But the thing that really drives me into theory at all is exactly a wish to understand why – socially and politically – the world just isn’t right. And from this, hopefully, contribute to ideas on how we can change it.

    I don’t mean to sound moralistic about this either… for me it’s more about what drives me to understand things. Even when my early studies were focused on the natural sciences, it was a wish to better the world that made me interested in studying, not studying simply to understand. I can’t remember a time I did not want to know the practical significance of this knowledge.

    I’ve been reading Negt and Kluge lately, on the concept of the proletarian public sphere. I find their take on consciousness and collective experience particularly interesting. In a section on the role of fantasy in providing ‘an unconscious practical critique of alienation’, they provide a great quote from Marx in a letter to Ruge, titled ‘For a ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing’. Here is a small part of it:

    We develop new principles to the world out of its own principles. We do not say to the world: ‘Stop fighting; your struggle is of no account. We want to shout the true slogan of the struggle at you.’ We only show the world what it is fighting for… The reform of consciousness consists only in enabling the world to clarify its consciousness, in waking it from its dream about itself, in explaining to it the meaning of its own actions.

    … I have not managed to find the whole letter online, but here is a little more: For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing

    I think I agree with this… that theorising can help us to better understand our compulsion for political action, but along it cannot provide much by the way of advice for what specific plan of action we should take. Theory may help us a lot to understand what we are actually fighting for or why we’re fighting at all, but I’m not so sure it helps us to understand the practicalities of HOW we fight for this. Only collectivised political experience (which is both practical and theoretical) can do this – and by this I mean lessons from both gains and losses.

    Lenin spoke a lot – and so have many historians – about the role of the 1905 events in Russia in teaching a whole generation of class fighters the lessons necessary for 1917. Whatever readers of this blog might think of these events, we can at least learn this… that one of the most (if not, the most) significant political events in the 20th century only occurred because of its ‘dress rehearsal’. It did also require those who could analyse, critique and share these lessons… but even this work could not be done by those who only sat behind desks.

    How does this all translate to the ‘modern’ academic environment? I don’t know. But I find academia frightening and stifling. And for me at least, the test of any theoretical developments I might make will be in political struggle, off campus. That being said, considering the current state of political struggle, I am happy for the moment to shift the balance in favour of some theorising – it’s a sabbatical in political theory if you like. I hope that’s not too hypocritical.

  4. N Pepperell May 18, 2008 at 6:37 am

    Hey folks – I just wanted to post briefly to thank people for responding, and to apologise for not being more available to reply. I’m in a frantic rush before leaving town, and have had to deal with various last-minute annoyances, and so haven’t had time online. Also, since pings don’t seem to be working correctly on the blog at the moment, I wanted to point folks to Nate’s response over at what in the hell…

  5. John Hutnyk May 19, 2008 at 6:30 am

    There is much to say no doubt, but having read both Rob’s comment here and Nate’s over at what the hell, where both seem to say ‘we’ve been here before’, I sure don’t want to rehearse any repetitions except to say this all (re)started for me in a discussion about the plausibility of any enabling distinction between theory and practice (this was in a dungeon like London bar with Luke and Leila). My feeling, and its coming out more and more in the Attack the Headquarters sessions, is that my academic work is tragically in lieu of being able to join a Party organization capable of winning. ‘Too many Fucking Trotskyites’ was George Bataille’s reason for staying away from the French Party sects, but it was also because he wanted more. Me too I guess, (we are also discussing this a little here), and in the meantime trying to find ways of working to change theory from a coffee chat into something more exciting, like a pub brawl, which in the UK is as close to a programmatic… no, of course I don’t mean just a pub brawl, but something of the enthusiasm and passion we have for talking after class is what I think needs to be brought to the class struggle AND into the class room itself.

    Lisa – I think Tom can find the Letter to Ruge.

    NP – thanks for starting this and see you at Goldsmiths soon for this.

    Red Salute.

  6. N Pepperell May 19, 2008 at 12:42 pm

    Hey John – Thanks for this – looking forward to meeting everyone at Goldsmiths as well. Apologies for the lack of substantive follow up – rushing to get ready for the trip…

  7. Nate May 20, 2008 at 11:28 pm

    Hey NP,
    If you haven’t left yet, or if you have, I hope it’s fun and productive, and I look forward to reading about it.
    take care,

  8. Joseph Kugelmass June 7, 2008 at 8:26 am


    Thanks for the Passion Quilt tag! Sorry I haven’t been by enough lately; perhaps I’ll explain why at some point over at my place.

    It seems to me, in thinking about what Nate’s said, that there’s a sort of productive exhaustion with this question of the politics of academic work. Rather than motivating us towards new and more dynamic formulations of what we’re doing, it seems to push us towards screeds against academia that ring a bit hollow, or it forces us in the other direction, towards hero-narratives about academic work that are plain ludicrous.

    I admire how you’ve avoided both extremes. You’re positing the value of achieving a certain level of reflection, without which we can’t get ahold (literally the dialectical Begriffen) of our situation under capitalism — how it works, how it benefits us, and how it might be changed. Interestingly, in your post, the “material” is a check, a form of demurral even. It curbs a radical cleverness that might otherwise produce those questionable hero-narratives, and it maintains some parity between the inside and the outside of academia.

    My only reservations come in response to the idea that “academic thought mobilises very similar sorts of perceptions and thoughts as those mobilised in the marketplace.” Unquestionably, academia is a marketplace — individuals seeking jobs, books seeking publication, ideas seeking audiences and followers — and so are it auxiliaries, such as the academic blogosphere, in which blogs (or, more accurately, whole communities of bloggers) compete for the attention of readers.

    That being the case, perhaps we need to begin to look at differences between marketplaces. For example, the kind of analytical work you have done with a couple of key texts on this blog (Hegel’s books and Capital) is certainly antithetical to the marketplace logic of breadth and browsing. Close reading, from a certain economic point of view, is a depressive form of under-consumption. There are great distinctions between different kinds of marketplaces, between their values and impacts, that we should recognize and uphold as part of the ethical practice of intellectual work.

  9. Joe June 9, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    Amazing discussion. Some beautiful points of light here; but I’ll at least try to answer the question first, because it’s a particularly good one.

    It strikes me that lines of research ought not to be chosen with a conscious political purpose; but that on the other hand, to ignore the political dimensions — especially of science, art and philosophy — is cynically oblivious. The “edge” is thin but real. It simply doesn’t make very much sense (to me) to deny that theoreticians practice, are the first practitioners, and are even a sort of internalized clergy, regulating the flow of signals through the network. I like that somewhat asked whether or not this “obvious” question of knowledge-commerce was in fact lethal, probably since it reduces theoreticians to storytellers-for-hire. In other words: if theories are stories in a “radical” sense, what’s the limit? What’s to stop you from just saying whatever you want?

    In the context of these sorts of concerns, I really like that you framed the problem initially in terms of post-Marxist theory, but then immediately widened it to include the “work” of theory in general — the politics of science. Transforming both good and common sense takes a very long time, relatively speaking. But I think it is possible to discover within ourselves a kind of political prudence, which without advocating violence explores the possibilities of resistance, which implicitly and even structurally acknowledges the usefulness, the importance of asking questions which may seem absurd, dangerous, paradoxical — if only because they expand what it is possible to ask, what it is possible to think.

    I think that this is a problem one can start to feel very old thinking about, especially when you’re young at heart. The schism cuts both ways, especially in intellectual fields — in which we’re apt to carry over the haste and fervor of our everyday lives. When do we think today? When do we have time? What we have, in other words, is reflection without speculation, practice divorced from theory, an all-too-human mediation which yields neither and reconciles no one. “Truth” ought not to render silent our voices before an objective significance; it exists anonymously only as imperialism, the holy body of the despot. But shouldn’t truth reconcile us together?


  10. N Pepperell June 21, 2008 at 5:52 am

    Folks – Just a quick thank you for these comments, and an apology for leaving this discussion fallow. I’m still in recovery mode, but back at least where I can get online for more than a few minutes at a time.

  11. Pingback: Words and things pt. 5: Practice of theory « Dead Voles

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