Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Social Construction

Okay. This post is a mess. Not up for serious reflection. But Praxis opened a discussion of something slightly related to these issues that I’ve been neglecting while I’ve been away from Melbourne, and… enough time off, I suppose. I step tentatively here in the direction of some of Praxis’ questions, reaching for a bridge between what I’m working on now, for the thesis, and the broader sorts of questions I’m being encouraged to address in greater detail over there. The result… Well… Apologies – hopefully quality will improve soon…

I’ve been thinking about how I approach the question of critical standpoint – my one-sentence summary of the dissertation recently has been that it’s a study of the standpoint of critique in the first volume of Capital (we’ll see if Carl approves of this as an adequate gesture at self-vulgarisation :-) ). So, in a sense, I’ve been thinking of nothing but the question of critical standpoint for some months. Recently, though, I’ve been wondering how much confusion I might be causing, by using the term “critical standpoint” for what I’m trying to express. My worry derives from the sense that I’m not attempting to ask the sorts of questions that I think are probably most commonly associated with discussions of critical standpoint. Moving here from vulgarising myself, to the more questionable game of vulgarising others, I take those more typical questions to be: how social transformation per se should be possible; how a political agent could be constituted; and how a transcendent ideal can be identified, against which the existing social context can be judged and found wanting.

In contrast to these questions, what I am asking is more along the lines of: what else might we construct with the various sorts of social materials that we already use to build the society we’ve got? – what other sorts of social structures could we create, working as bricoleurs crafting new history out of the existing social stuff we find scattered on the ground around us? These questions do touch in various ways on the concerns that motivate the questions more traditionally associated with considerations of standpoint of critique – but they do so with a somewhat awkward and incomplete fit. I’m concerned about the potential for misunderstanding, if my claims are mapped into the framework of a sort of argument I’m not trying to make – in particular, I’m concerned to make clear the rather limited (and, from the standpoint of many approaches, I suspect fairly unsatisfying) sort of argument I’m trying to make – an argument that leaves unresolved much of what is generally taken to be central to the question I’m claiming to address – although, I would suggest, it might have a few distinctive virtues of its own.

On the issue of why social transformation per se should be possible: this question preoccupies a great many theoretical and philosophical approaches – often fuelled by a prior commitment to a notion that social reproduction relies on a sort of hyper-structuration or totalistic quality of the social context. I’ve argued previously that starting from the premise of a hyper-structured or totalistic context, can make it seem very difficult to understand how change should ever become possible, leading to forms of critique that are necessarily “pessimistic” in the technical sense of being divorced from any analysis of immanent social potentials for change, because the social itself has already been posited in a way that precludes the immanent emergence of transformative potentials. I tend to start from the notion (which seems to me empirically more plausible, if nothing else) of social contexts as multifaceted and “lumpy” [marginal note to self: it attracts very strange looks at conferences, when one asks other presenters questions relating to whether the social context is ultimately "lumpier" than their analysis allows - a more elegant way of expressing this particular point would save many blank stares and forestall any number of (hopefully?) premature conclusions that I have no idea what the hell I'm talking about], and then see what sort of work can be done through the exploration of the internal multiplicity of some particular social context.

Still, it is quite possible to theorise this sort of claim – about a multifaceted social environment – as a foundation for a more general attempt to theorise why social transformation should be possible, and I’m not unsympathetic to construction of such a general theory – a theory that might think of itself as applying in various sorts of social contexts, and not simply in our own. It just isn’t the sort of theory that I do (although it may, when I’m summarising conclusions, rather than presenting a proper version of my argument, sound like what I’m doing). What I do instead (perhaps more precisely: what I intend to do, and what I would hope to do if I were being consistent with how I think about the issue) is to work backwards from the slice of our specific social that I work on – the slice involved with the production of capital. This slice of our experience confronts us with ongoing opportunities for practical exposure to a process of reworking and transforming bits of our social context, as part of a process of social reproduction that proceeds precisely via the transformation of other elements of our social (as Carl suggested in the context of the discussion over at Praxis).

My argument would tend to be that this practical experience of transformation is… one of the bits of material that we happen to find lying around in our existing social context. Probabilistically, within the current context, this bit of material is often associated with the reproduction of capital – but this probabilistic association isn’t exhaustive of the things we can create out of this material: the practical experience of the capacity to transform elements of our social environment, forms a bit of material that is potentially portable – potentially extrapolable – we might be able to build something else with this material, aside from what we tend to build with it now. The limits on what we can do with this material – well, those are things to be tested out in practice, as well – it’s difficult to know, until we try to do, and see what sort of kickback or friction those practical experiments elicit – what sorts of consequences result.

The current practical experience, though, of working with this sort of material, provides the basis for a (tentative, hypothetical) speculative extrapolation – the extrapolation that, while we might have become particularly aware of, or sensitive to this material for quite contingent reasons at a very specific historical juncture, while we might find it particularly intuitive or easy to think the contingency and constructed character of our social life now, because we engage so actively with certain sorts of social construction in such an everyday and palpable way, still, perhaps – hypothetically – we can build something else from this material, aside from what we already find ourselves building in our present everyday. Maybe one of the things we can build – if we can find a few other appropriate support structures, bricks, mortars, and such lying about in our experiential rubble – is a – tentative, hypothetical, but more general sort of – social science, with which we might attempt to cast light on situations and experiences other than our own, whether in the past, or in some potential futures.

This sort of process – trying to trace the core theoretical concepts I want to wield, back to practical experiences that explain why such concepts might lie so ready to conceptual hand when we want to construct a theory – is largely how I understand the seemingly abstract concept of theoretical reflexivity: this process of connecting up what we think, to what we do, so that the connection between the categories of theorisation, and the time in which the theory is developed, stays sufficiently forgrounded to help keep the process of theorisation a bit… unsure of itself – a bit grounded in its own contingency – which, I would suggest, is still a solid enough foundation for the sorts of constructions we need to build. The process can get to many of the same places as a more a priori theoretical construction – the normal science of the social sciences can still unfold, just on a slightly altered metatheoretical base, one that tries to keep a slightly closer contact with how even the most abstract concepts – the ones whose qualitative characteristics cause them to seem non-specific to our society (or any other) – like the concept of “society” – express something more specific about us, about our practice – are “true” for us in some slightly different way than they might be true for other times – in Marx’s formulation, contain an “essential difference” when we apply them retrospectively to the past or speculatively to the future. This slight alteration in self-understanding – from treating ourselves as discovering latent truths, to treating ourselves as speculatively extrapolating from contingent local experiences – makes it a bit easier to hone in on the specificity and contingency of our specific moment, providing a focus that can be particularly useful for critique.

All this much too abbreviated: doing this properly requires simultaneously juggling a whole circuit of concepts, each linked back to arguments about why these concepts might be particularly intuitive to think at the present time, and then exploring the sorts of constructions that become possible once we have a collection of different building blocks to play with, rather than just one single bit of material, as I’ve used above with the gestural example of the experience of social transformation. Until I’ve suspended a whole heap of material in this way, it necessarily looks as though I’m simply presupposing a lot of things that, by my own standards, I would ideally want to explain. No doubt there will remain many, many things I do presuppose – my aim isn’t to achieve some sort of totalistic comprehensiveness, but it is at least to render impressionistically plausible the claim that it is possible to suspend many major, basic, foundational categories – the sorts of categories that tend to be presupposed as constitutive for social scientific work of any sort (society, history, etc.) and the sorts of concepts specifically central to the sort of work I do (immanence, reflexivity, etc.). These are the sorts of things that – over the long haul, certainly not in the thesis itself, other than in the most gestural way – I am attempting to juggle, whether I end up ultimately dropping the ball or not…

At any rate: all of this was by way of saying that I work backward – and in what is no doubt a philosophically completely disreputable way – from the standpoint, I think, adopted by most approaches that want to start with the question of why social transformation per se might be possible. This doesn’t mean the latter question isn’t an interesting, important, or valid one – only that my own work is probably well nigh useless for answering it, other than in the very general, limit sense, of possibly ruling out certain sorts of answers. So what I have in mind when I think about critical standpoint is, I think, somewhat at a skew to more general or abstract (arguably more rigorous) attempts to grasp conditions of possibility for transformation at a more fundamental ontological level.

I really should move from here, to talk about the other common understandings of what it means to theorise critical standpoint – the theorisation of a political subject, and the theorisation of a transcendent norm. But I’m still finding myself very sluggish from the trip – I think I’ve butchered the first set of issues comprehensively enough, and so wreaking damage on the others will need to wait for another post (possibly in the very distant future). It may be worth emphasising very briefly that, in mentioning that I am not trying to do these various things, I am not necessarily critical of approaches that do attempt to do them – my reaction to specific approaches tends to depend… on the specifics. I’m just trying, in a very gestural way, to clarify some of the limitations and the strategic intentions of my own work.

More eventually… And apologies for the very groggy state in which this was written… (How long does it take to recover from a month overseas? :-) )

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2 responses to “Social Construction

  1. Praxis June 24, 2008 at 6:09 am

    On the ‘lumpiness’ thing… I know you’ve thought through all this – but might it be useful or interesting to relate or contrast this to Althusser’s stuff about overdetermination & ‘internal uneveness’? (Probably not – but I’ve just read ‘For Marx’, so it’s on the mind…)

    From ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’: “Only overdetermination enables us to understand the concrete variations and mutations of a structured complexity such as a social formation… not as the accidental variations and mutations produced by external ‘conditions’ in a fixed structured whole… but as so many concrete restructurations inscribed in the essence, the ‘play’… of the articulations of the complex structure in dominance which is reflected in them.” (p. 210) “So uneveness is internal to a social formation because the structuration in dominance of the complex whole, this structural invariant, is itself the precondition for the concrete variation of the contradictions that constitute it, and therefore for their displacement, condensations and mutations, etc., and inversely because this variation is the existence of that invariant.” (p. 213).

    For what it’s worth…

  2. N Pepperell June 24, 2008 at 7:54 am

    Yes – I need to write on Althusser (and so many others…) in detail. (*sigh* :-) ) Among other things, he’s reflecting explicitly on the issue of what Marx means, when he talks about “inverting” Hegel – this would be worth a post at some point here. Probably not a post I can write soon.

    This won’t be an adequate answer to your question – I’m too far away from Althusser’s text right now to provide that – apologies. But one of the things that strikes me just from the passages you’ve quoted, in light of what I’ve written above, is that they are aimed at the question of “a social formation” – the suggestion, then, is that social formations per se could be understood in the terms used above – that categories like “structured complexity” or the existence of a “structural invariant” that “is itself the precondition for the concrete variation of the contradictions that constitute it” – that these are sort of general concepts applicable to any social formation.

    I realise this isn’t what you’re asking – following my reaction, rather than your question, here – but, when I talk about my approach being “backward”, this is part of what I mean: I don’t start with any particularly strong claims about what social formations are like. I start with questions, and of course claims, about what some specific social situation is like (trying, somewhere in the process, if I’m managing to be rigorous (which, usually not… but still…) to explain how that specific situation generates the apparently more general categories – like “social” – that I’m using to interrogate that situation) – and, while I’m not averse to extrapolating from that situation, to being attuned to the possibility that other situations may share common features, I try not to assume that they will (impossible to be completely consistent, but this is the basic idea).

    Particularly when it comes to claims that are as specific as the ones being made in the quotations you’ve reproduced above: I’m inclined to think it’s probably somewhat weird, to have a social formation that can be described in terms that seem to map fairly well onto Hegel’s particular conceputalisation of the essence-appearance relation – where a “structural invariant, is itself the precondition for the concrete variation of the contradictions that constitute it, and therefore for their displacement, condensations and mutuations, etc., and inversely because this variation is the existence of that invariant“: this sort of formulation works pretty well for as a descriptor of a certain aspect of the reproduction of capital – and I’m willing to be convinced that it might have some use, extrapolated to other situations – but I’d need to be convinced, as on its face it looks like a very specific sort of qualitative characteristic for something to possess, if this makes sense – particularly given that, as I understand Marx, it reads to me as though he spends quite a lot of time trying to understand why the reproduction of capital possesses these sorts of characteristics, and also arguing that social formations as such need not possess them – en route to trying to establish the existence of an emancipatory potential to overcome production oriented to value…

    More on point to the question you are asking: in terms of whether this sort of Hegelian essence/appearance relation is what I mean, when talking about contexts being “lumpy” – I think I take myself to be saying something very different. These formulations seem designed to capture the relation between an implicit structure or pattern, and the various explicit phenomena through whose movements that pattern is constituted and expressed. I make an argument like this – or, rather, I argue that Marx makes an argument like this – in talking about the emergent properties of the capital relation. But the strategic intention, I think, of my argument is somewhat different – or maybe it just sounds this way to me. There’s something in Althusser’s formulation that sounds (and I may just be being very unfair – much much too far away from this text, and no time to read it adequately now) as though it would make it somewhat difficult to do what I’m trying to do, which is to make an argument that it might be possible to differentiate the relation from its parts – and to explore the potential qualitative characteristics the parts might hold, outside the relation. There’s something in the vocabulary above that strikes me as though it could work against this, deflect attention from this – and it’s really this sort of “lumpiness” that I’m after, rather than the necessary interconnections between the conflictual moments in an essence-appearance sort of relation, which seems to be where the focus implicitly falls above?

    Perhaps the difference is too slight, but I’m aiming for a vocabulary that makes it a bit easier to unearth the potential to break the relation apart. When Marx talks about “contradiction”, he often uses the Hegelian example of the ellipse as an example – where the contradiction between objects moving toward one another, and objects flying apart from one another, is resolved in an elliptical orbit: this isn’t the sort of “lumpiness” I’m after, where contradiction figures just as the generative moment of a lawlike pattern. There may be aspects of the reproduction of capital that do function in something like this way, and that can therefore be theorised appropriately in these terms. But what I’m after is more along the lines of how we can think something that reaches beyond this form of reproductive contradiction – how we can think about the possibility to selectively inherit from our history – to pull chunks from the context, turn them over and examine them, and then start working out what else we might be able to make with them – something else that I wouldn’t assume would necessarily have the same qualitative characteristics that, in these quotations, seem to be attributed to “structured complexity” as such.

    There is a presupposition – it sounds? and I may be being deeply unfair – please hear this as a reaction to the quotations taken in isolation, and not to the work – that social formations are always a similar sort of beast. I’m not claiming that they aren’t – but I’m not clear of the basis for claiming that they are. And my sense is that Marx puts quite a lot of his effort into demonstrating the practical genesis – and therefore the historical contingency – of this specific essence-appearance structure (thus, Marx characterises value as a “social hieroglyph” because he thinks it’s constituted this way, but he argues that this sort of hieroglyph isn’t necessarily characteristic of other historical periods – whatever the other flaws those periods might possess, etc.).

    Apologies if this doesn’t make any sense or is completely off point – still having difficulty adjusting to local time, and have been up all night – possibly not the best recipe for an intelligible comment. And I probably shouldn’t have commented at all without working back through the text properly.

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