Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Humbuggery in Action

Frank H. Strauss – an evidently frustrated reader of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project – posted the following in Amazon’s reader reviews:

This book is a nihilistic, incoherent work, and I dare anyone who reads this review to argue to the contrary. Admiration for this book is humbuggery in action. The emperor has no clothes.

There is, of course, a veritable cottage industry commenting on the quality of the Arcades’ vestments. It doesn’t hurt that the fragmentary nature of the work can function as a kind of theoretical rorschach, such that the resulting interpretations tell you a great deal about the commentators, but possibly not so much about what Benjamin was seeking to accomplish.

Since I am not personally a Benjamin scholar, this rorschach quality doesn’t worry me unduly – as I’ve previously commented on my occasional use of Marx, while I do my best to interpret the work accurately, my main concern is identifying interesting questions, and perhaps uncovering better conceptual tools for answering them. It is in this spirit that I approach Benjamin, who provides, I believe, excellent source material for both questions and conceptual tools.

In most sections of the Arcades Project, those questions remain very tacit, implied in the grouping of material. So, Convolute B, relating to fashion, seems fascinated with the question of historical cycles of consumption – with the turnover rate of taste, and also with the tendency for particular fashions to recur after set intervals. Convolute C, relating to the Paris catacombs, demolition, and concepts of decline, seems drawn to the emergence of a historical sensibility that is attuned to the long sweep of history, from whose perspective we can readily imagine a time when everything around us will, in its turn, be destroyed. Convolute D, on boredom and eternal return, again draws attention to perceptions of historical time – in this case, time that moves on and on without a substantive endpoint. In many convolutes, Benjamin therefore seems to be operating on a parallel track to Weber’s famous diagnosis of modern society:

Now, do they have any meanings that go beyond the purely practical and technical? You will find this question raised in the most principled form in the works of Leo Tolstoi. He came to raise the question in a peculiar way. All his broodings increasingly revolved around the problem of whether or not death is a meaningful phenomenon. And his answer was: for civilized person death has no meaning. It has none because the individual life of civilized man, placed into an infinite ‘progress,’ according to its own imminent meaning should never come to an end; for there is always a further step ahead of one who stands in the march of progress. And no person who comes to die stands upon the peak which lies in infinity. Abraham, or some peasant of the past, died ‘old and satiated with life’ because he stood in the organic cycle of life; because his life, in terms of its meaning and on the eve of his days, had given to him what life had to offer; because for him there remained no puzzles he might wish to solve; and therefore he could have had ‘enough’ of life. Whereas civilized man, placed in the midst of the continuous enrichment of culture by ideas, knowledge, and problems, may become ‘tired of life’ but not ‘satiated with life.’ He catches only the most minute part of what the life of the spirit brings forth ever anew, and what he seizes is always something provisional and not definitive, and therefore death for him is a meaningless occurrence. And because death is meaningless, civilized life as such is meaningless; by its very ‘progressiveness’ it gives death the imprint of meaninglessness.(“Science as a Vocation”, pp. 14-15)

At the same time, Benjamin does not descend fully into Weberian pessimism. Instead, Benjamin holds out the potential for emancipatory alternatives. In this vein, Convolute E, on Haussmann and the barricades, tacitly contrasts two different forms of action oriented to bringing about a better future – town planning (conscious in its aims, but not necessarily oriented to emancipation) and revolutionary uprising (oriented to emancipation, but not necessarily fully conscious of its aims). Further convolutes – particularly the most explicitly theoretical material in convolute N – work and rework the concept of the “dreamtime” of modernity, holding out the possibility that it might somehow be possible to awaken potentials for emancipation.

In my own personal rorschach, therefore, what I see everywhere in Benjamin’s images are tacit questions about why we experience and perceive history the way we do, and how those experiences and perceptions relate to the historical emergence of emancipatory ideals – and, possibly, to our ability to achieve greater freedom in practice. I see Benjamin, then, as quintessentially concerned with questions of epistemology – how do we know what we claim to know? why do we perceive the world in a certain way? – and with the relationship between epistemology and critique – why do we believe (at least in some ways, in some times) that more freedom is possible? This is, of course, not a bad diagnosis of the central goals of my own work – which may mean that I have merely taken a “tiger’s leap” into Benjamin’s writings, scenting only what is relevant to my own interests. If so, I believe it has been a productive hunt. I’ll try in future installments to flesh out more fully what I have captured from Benjamin’s work.

9 responses to “Humbuggery in Action

  1. MT December 9, 2005 at 5:18 pm

    I think Weber may have his numerator but I doubt he has his denominator: He doesn’t know what the elderly Abraham or ancient peasant felt. Perhaps I don’t know what Weber was thinking at all, but if his middle class modernity was like mine, then maybe his point is that the high social mobility and diversity of career and travel opportunities, plus the eternal opportunity to acquire or try the latest innovation tends to blur visibility of the finish line, if ever our ancestors perceived one. I suppose the postponement of marriage and kids to later in life supports that. You could just say the middle class today have the options of ancient aristocrats who married and divorced and conquered new lands. Did the pharoahs see a finish line?

  2. N Pepperell December 9, 2005 at 6:21 pm

    One of Weber’s major concerns was how to understand the driving force of “progress” in human history. I think that there is a significant tension in Weber’s works over how “progress” is understood (and I’m certainly not the first one to note this tension – Habermas, among many others, also points to it).

    On one level, Weber speaks of “progress” in a transhistorical sense – as a world-historical process of “rationalisation” that sweeps across human history and through multiple societies. In other places, including the passage quoted above, I think you could make a case that Weber recognises a qualitative distinction between the forms of “progress” that characterise contemporary society (and the forms of subjectivity associative with an aggressively future-oriented social form), and previous forms of social life that were not so coercively future-driven.

    In the passage above, Weber is effectively arguing that there is a negative side to the form of “progress” that characterises our social world – in his account, an inability to ever be completely fulfilled. Weber offers this diagnosis – much like Freud does in some of his writings – in the assumption that there is nothing we can do about this situation, but that, as social scientists, we need to recognise and understand the situation to which history has driven us.

    Habermas, along with other theorists who believe this crisis of meaning, etc., is not inevitable, tries to thread through this issue in a different way – in Habermas’ case, by arguing that the actual path followed by rationalisation under capitalism can be distinguished from a potential alternative, more emancipatory path.

    So, where Weber might have felt we could look nostalgically backward to historical periods not characterised by a similar crisis of meaning, he would have argued that a contemporary human could not adopt that same subjective orientation to the modern world, and still remain “rational”. Habermas argues, by contrast, that current society is actually not particularly rational (or, at least, not fully rational) – and that this incomplete rationalisation is responsible for any crisis of meaning we may experience.

    I have my disagreements with both Weber and Habermas – but neither of them, I would suggest, offers an analysis that is particularly based on the concept of social class. And in this respect, at least, I think they’re both onto something… ;-P They are both asking questions that are more fundamental in scope than the questions typically associated with, say, relativising one’s epistemic position by acknowledging personal class bias, etc. This is a major reason I find it productive to play off against both of them.

  3. MT December 10, 2005 at 3:39 am

    I’m not somebody who talks much about class, but I’m deeply suspicious about talk in the abstract about a single way of thinking that everybody who has ever seen a television is engaged in. Unless it’s based on shared biology or an easily identified and very basic distinction between modern and prehistoric living. I took a cultural studies survey course long ago, and it struck me as all too easy to tell stories about your reified abstraction of the national or global unconscious. “Keep it real,” is my stance. Or so I like to think of it.

  4. N Pepperell December 10, 2005 at 1:23 pm

    If your starting point is a fundamental “How could they know?” kind of skepticism, why would it instill any more confidence, if someone were to claim the distinction were biological in origin? The basic epistemological question still remains: whether someone puts forward a biological or a social explanation for an historical phenomenon, they are still dependent on the same mechanisms for noticing the phenomenon – i.e., they look at the historical record (physical artifacts, written records, etc.), and then try to make a case that things have been different in the past, or that they have been the same…

    I do, though, believe that epistemology – the question of how we know what we claim to know – needs serious and sustained attention. And it often doesn’t get the attention it requires. And it may in fact not get any attention in a survey course…

    There are, though, academic traditions in the social sciences that pay a great deal of attention to epipstemological questions. I suspect that someone like Adorno, for example, would respond to your request to “keep it real”, by saying that there is more than one way we can divorce ourselves from reality. One of those ways, as you have pointed out, it to assume without justification that we are fundamentally different from everyone who has come before. Another, however, is to become so tied to our immediate reality that we lose sight of the question of whether that reality could be any different from how it currently is – and thus constrain ourselves, even as we distort our conception of the past.

  5. MT December 10, 2005 at 3:03 pm

    “They are still dependent on the same mechanisms for noticing the phenomenon – i.e., they look at the historical record (physical artifacts, written records, etc.),”

    Not at all, at least not in principle. A biological approach lets you draw inferences from baboons and phylogeny and anatomy and physiology and DNA and paleoclimatology and on medical and psychological and imaging experiments in animals and drugged or lesioned humans and on and on. The biologists got the tools my boy. If you’re wise you’ll seek a collaboration…or your doctoral students’ doctoral students will. This may take a while.

  6. N Pepperell December 10, 2005 at 3:39 pm

    Actually, I agree that contemporary social scientists need to read widely in the sciences – disciplines have a tendency to isolate themselves, citing only one another, and this can lead to immense problems. My current research project is a collaboration between scientists, economists, planners, social scientists, people in private practice, etc. So you’re preaching to the choir on the virtues of collaborative, cross-disciplinary research.

    This knife, however, cuts both ways: there are limits to scientific disciplinary approaches, as well as social scientific ones, and the core epistemological question remains the same, regardless of whether we’re talking about interpreting DNA or archaeological sites: if we don’t have a sufficiently clear understanding of how we perceive the world, and of why particular questions interest us, while others do not, we are very likely to make significant, and completely avoidable, mistakes with our interpretations.

    Just to give a very basic example: I did some work at one point developing a curriculum, techniques, etc., for working with students with poor reading proficiency. At the time, I was reading fairly widely in cognitive science, looking particularly at research into how people learn to read, how fluent readers approach text, etc. There was some fantastic stuff in this material: eye movement studies, investigations of brain injuries that affected the process of reading in very specific ways, etc. The approaches were very scientific, used all the latest toys, etc. And it yielded some really useful information.

    It also, however, tended to overgeneralise the findings from research that was mostly done, for example, in countries with an alphabetic language – and therefore to conclude that certain things were “necessary” or “natural” to reading acquisition, when one could actually fairly easily demonstrate these things were neither “necessary” nor “natural”, if one looked at studies done of readers in non-alphabetic systems.

    This was, of course, an easily correctible error – I just counterposed what I was researching on alphabetic systems with the results of studies of, for example, reading skills acquisition among Chinese readers. But it was nevertheless a bit disturbing how quickly some authors leapt to over-generalised conclusions – I think, in part, because scientific-style methodologies invoke an aura of universality. A greater familiarity with historical, anthropological, and other social science methodology can help puncture this universalistic veil, and move us closer to understanding the limits of our knowledge – which (as chaos theory, among other approaches, suggests) actually gives us a clearer sense of the level of confidence we can have in the conclusions we draw.

  7. N Pepperell December 10, 2005 at 4:26 pm

    P.S. I should perhaps clarify, in case it is unclear from this and other posts I’ve made here, that I am actually not a relativist in any conventional sense, nor am I in any way hostile to science. I do believe that the present separation of science from social science can operate to the detriment of both, and I am not convinced that either the sciences or the social sciences have fully coherent epistemological self-understandings. I understand this, though, as an immanent critique: in other words, it is because I believe that the accumulation of scientific knowledge is actually immensely important, that I also believe we need to develop a deeper understanding of key epistemological questions.

  8. MT December 10, 2005 at 5:14 pm

    Do scientists lack an epistemology? Applied epistemology is their profession. (I’m playing a scientific bumpkin, but that’s close to what I am).

    Experimental scientists do sometimes “go to town” (as we say state-side) with their new toys. It can be breathtaking what a scientist can conclude as soon as the plausible implications of the data extend just a little beyond the ken of his or her peer reviewers. If I recall correctly, some of the oldest problems in linguistics and the philosophy of mind were all but solved by early fMRI studies.

  9. N Pepperell December 10, 2005 at 5:30 pm

    Like most of their peers in non-scientific disciplines (and most people, generally, for that matter), most scientists have a tacit epistemology, the niceties of which they don’t worry about all too much, as they’re busy getting on with the business of applied research. In this sense, all of us have an applied epistemology.

    I have a particular curiosity about these tacit “applied epistemologies” – what they are, what they imply, what they allow us to perceive clearly, and what they obscure. I don’t think everyone needs to devote their every waking breath to these sorts of questions, but I think they’re very important questions for some people to explore in detail, and for everyone to think about at some time or another.

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