Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: October 2006

The Ouroboros

I’ve recently gotten several questions from people about what “that snake thing” is in the logo for the site. For those who aren’t familiar, the site logo is an ouroboros – a serpent eating its own tail. I chose the ouroboros as a logo because I spend a lot of time talking about self-reflexive theory – about the need to ground ideals within our own historical experience, rather than reaching beyond our experience for some external perspective – and the ouroboros seemed as good a symbol as any for this purpose. (Although I should note that, since the ouroboros has historically primarily been used as a symbol for religious and alchemical movements, the symbol’s antifoundationalist heritage is somewhat suspect… But I’ve taken to heart Benjamin’s advice that historical materialists must brush history against the grain…) I had originally actually intended the current image to be a short-term stopgap, to be replaced with a better-drawn ouroboros, but have somehow never quite gotten around to it.

Random Thoughts on Privilege and Critique

The changing composition of funding for academic work over the past several decades – with more funding from the private sector, and more funding potentially tied to problematic intellectual property agreements, restrictions on publication or research design, and other commercial arrangements – prompts recurrent debate over the ethical implications of linking academic work to commercial interests. Few people draw a hard line on this issue, insisting, for example, that all forms of private funding are unacceptable, or that private funding arrangements never pose problems for academic integrity. Most of us – myself included – make our own separate peaces, hoping that we can trust ourselves to be guided by some principled logic other than what is most convenient for our research needs at the time… And few of us draw lines in the same places, meaning that the issue of outside funding arrangements provides a reliable source of ongoing debate within the academy.

Every time I become involved in one of these debates, I can’t help but think of Horkheimer’s “Fable of Consistency”, from Dämmerung. I couldn’t get my hands on the original for this post, but I’ll reproduce Martin Jay’s retelling from The Dialectical Imagination:

In the fable, two poor poets are invited to accept a considerable stipend by a tyrannical king who values their work. One is disturbed by the taint on the money. “You are inconsistent,” the other answers. “If you so believe, you must continue to go hungry. He who feels one with the poor, must live like them.” Agreeing, the first poet rejects the king’s offer and proceeds to starve. Shortly thereafter, the other becomes the court poet. Horkheimer finishes his “fairy tale” by cautioning: “Both drew the consequences, and both consequences favored the tyrant. With the general moral prescription of consistency, there seems one condition: it is friendlier to tyrants than to poor poets.”

I love this fable, although I realise that statements like this are often cited in criticisms of the Frankfurt School scholars – that they lived in too much material comfort, too distant from practical political struggles, etc. Nevertheless, I think it can be important to acknowledge that intellectual work involves a level of privilege and a level of distance – and, however disturbing it can be that similar privileges and choices may not be freely available to anyone who wishes to pursue them, access to a certain level of privilege may be integral to critique. When consistent choices “favour the tyrant”, critique may be characterised precisely by its lived inconsistency with emancipatory ideals – a complex subject position that Benjamin also seemed to regard as intrinsic to a reconfigured historical materialism:

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.

Kerim Friedman from Savage Minds has recently been writing his own series of posts about what kinds of knowledge academics produce, reflecting on whether we can regard knowledge as cumulative, on whether anthropological knowledge in particular “matters” for government policy at the present time and, most recently, on whether we hold some responsibility for how our published words might come to be used. In this final post, Kerim cites a passage from Adrienne Rich’s “North American Time” (the original poem is available in full here) relating to the ways in which published words persist, and come to be reappropriated in unanticipated – and sometimes horrific – ways when historical circumstances shift around them:

II
Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.
One line typed twenty years ago
can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
to glorify art as detachment
or torture of those we
did not love but also
did not want to kill

We move but our words stand
become responsible
for more than we intended

and this is verbal privilege.

The poem parallels the Horkheimer fable, the author asking whether our understanding of this privilege – and of our ultimate lack of control over the impact our work will have on the world – should reduce us to silence:

I am writing this in a time
when anything we write
can be used against those we love
where the context is never given
though we try to explain, over and over
For the sake of poetry at least
I need to know these things

And decides that the need to give voice to the potential for change outweighs the costs of speaking.

In Methods, Madness

I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve found myself reading much more draft student work this term than I normally do. While this has been a somewhat sudden development, the work involved is continuous with work I’ve done in other academic contexts – I don’t think I’m anyone’s notion of a master of English prose, but I have done a lot of thinking and teaching on academic writing, and believe I can provide at least passable assistance to most students who are struggling with the genre.

What has been more surprising this term has been the number of requests I’ve been receiving for consultations on research methodology. I realise it sounds a bit odd to be surprised by this, given that I’m teaching a research methods course. And I do love teaching into this course – it’s my favourite “subject” to teach, specifically because I enjoy the process of workshopping the logical connections between students’ broad interests, their narrower research questions and their methodologies. It’s one of the most creative teaching processes I currently engage in – an intrinsically unpredictable, decentred, energising form of teaching practice that would be very difficult to replicate in other contexts.

Still, before being invited to teach the course, I had never previously thought of myself as any kind of methods “expert”. Having taught the course for a year now… I still don’t… And yet here I am, sketching on scraps of paper and whiteboards, trying to help people map out connections between intellectual interests, research questions and methodologies… And, since I like the work and want to continue doing it, I’m engaged in a process of trying to increase my skills so that they begin to seem somewhat proportionate to the faith people are placing in them… Problem is, I’m not sure that all of this effort is getting me any closer to any kind of methodological expertise – instead, I mainly seem to find myself refining ways of communicating some fairly straightforward dimensions of academic practice, such as (in no particular order): Read more of this post

Overheard at the Local Restaurant: GI Joe

Man: “I had crumpets for breakfast – they’re really good! They’re low-GI, you know!”

Woman: “Did you have honey on them?”

Man: “Yes.”

Woman: “Jam?”

Man: “A little bit, yeah.”

Woman: “That’s not low-GI then, is it?”

Man: “Oh, well, yeah – but just imagine if I’d had those same toppings on toast!”

Sidebar on Searle

So in theory I’m supposed to be writing on Chomsky, but in practice I seem to keep writing about odd elements that crop up in critiques of Chomsky. Note that criticising Chomsky’s critics isn’t quite the same as defending Chomsky – I still don’t know enough about his argument to affirm or deny it. My goal is simply to get a bit closer to understanding what you would need to criticise, if you wanted to tackle Chomsky’s core theoretical claims…

My current concern is directed to a point that Searle has brought up, in slightly different ways, in both his 1972 and 2002 critiques – a point relating to the… onotological and causal status of linguistic “rules” within Chomsky’s framework. I’ll reproduce a couple of passages to try to communicate what troubles me – and to make it easier for others to decide whether I’m just midunderstanding Searle, or whether Searle is misunderstanding Chomsky – or whether both Searle and I are equally confused…

In the 1972 article, Searle seems to feel that it is a problem for Chomsky’s account that Chomsky cannot say clearly how underlying grammatical rules come to be known by actual speakers of particular languages:

[Chomsky] is not, of course, claiming that a speaker actually goes consciously or unconsciously through any such process of applying rules of the form “rewrite X as Y” to construct sentences. To construe the grammarian’s description this way would be to confuse an account of competence with a theory of performance.

But Chomsky does claim that in some form or other the speaker has “internalized” rules of sentence construction, that he has “tacit” or “unconscious” knowledge of grammatical rules, and that the phrase structure rules constructed by the grammarian “represent” his competence. One of the chief difficulties of Chomsky’s theory is that no clear and precise answer has ever been given to the question of exactly how the grammarian’s account of the construction of sentences is supposed to represent the speaker’s ability to speak and understand sentences, and in precisely what sense of “know” the speaker is supposed to know the rules of the grammar.

If I’m understanding correctly, a similar issue arises in the 2002 debate, in what, to my admittedly inexperienced eye, seems to be a somewhat confused passage relating to the relationship of Chomsky’s rules to the causes of linguistic behaviour:

1. Rules. Chomsky thinks that I suppose the rules of grammar are regulative rules like the rule “drive on the right.” That is not true. In my article, I introduced a reference to driving on the right as an example to show how rules can function causally in behavior; but in the article I also distinguish between “regulative” and “constitutive” rules. Regulative rules regulate antecedently existing activities like driving. Constitutive rules create the very possibility of the activities they regulate, for without the rules there is no activity to regulate. Human languages—like chess, money, private property, and government—are matters of constitutive rules, because to speak English—or play chess—for example, one must follow (at least a large subset of) the rules.

The rules of generative grammar were intended to be constitutive in this sense. The chief difference between me and Chomsky was not over whether there really were constitutive rules of generative grammar, but their relation to consciousness. I thought that unconsciously functioning rules had to be the kind of rules that could be conscious; Chomsky disagreed. Indeed, four of the features of rules in Chomsky’s early work were that the rules functioned unconsciously, were not even accessible to consciousness, were constitutive, and functioned causally. The rules have to be causally real in order to explain linguistic behavior. The speaker’s competence consists in a mastery of the rules and his competence gives rise, though often imperfectly, to his performance. Competence is the competence to perform. And in order to function causally the rules have to be constitutive in my sense, because prior to the rules there is nothing to operate causally on. There is no set of physical properties sufficient to determine all and only English sentences (or games of chess or married couples or governments), because such things exist only within systems of rules.

What puzzles me about these statements is that they seem to imply that, if you posit the existence of generative rules that describe regularities or patterns within observed practice, then:

(1) there is no value to defining such rules, unless you can also explain where they currently “reside” and/or how they come to be “internalised” so that they can then be expressed in practice; and

(2) you must necessarily accord such generative rules an ontological status that allows them to function as causal forces.

For the moment, I want to bracket the issue of whether Chomsky might, e.g., regard the linguistic rules he has identified as causal (Chomsky’s responses, to me, suggest that Searle may be mistaken in this point, but my main concern here is to approach this problem in at a more abstract level, separate from the specific claims of Chomsky’s work, on which I’m not qualified to comment at this point).

The first objection – that it is problematic to talk about generative rules unless you can explain how these rules have come to be internalised – seems an odd critique, mainly because it seems unnecessarily to bind together two distinct objects of inquiry: it’s certainly an interesting question, why regularities of practice come into being and how they are maintained, but it’s an analytically distinct question from what regularities might exist – what patterns we might be able to identify when we abstract from the thicket of rich experience that can obscure practitioners’ awareness that their behaviour demonstrates previously unrecognised order. Having made a case that a particular pattern exists, we can then of course begin to inquire into what causes this particular pattern of practice to occur: whether we can best make sense of the patterns we observe by appealing to notions of innate capacities, internalisation of social rules, etc. But it seems to me quite possible – and perhaps even quite likely – to be correct in our argument that a particular pattern of behaviour exists, while being completely incorrect in our explanation of why this pattern arises. These are two separable issues – whose investigation, I suspect, would generally involve quite different forms of research.

I find it similarly problematic to insist that generative rules, if they exist, must necessarily be conceptualised as ontologically-existent causal forces (rather than, say, as descriptions of empirical regularities, or as themselves the products of other causes, etc.). Certainly in other forms of social research, there are a number of traditions that attempt to map patterns of social practice – a process that can be useful for all sorts of reasons, among them clarifying the complexity of what we may need then to explain on a causal level – that would never assume the pattern has some separate ontological existence, isolated out from the social practices that express it and causing those practices to take a specific form. The search for causes can be understood as a distinct research problem, separate from the search for patterns within social practice. Take the simple, intuitive example of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” regulating market exchange: the proximate causes of market behaviours are incredibly complex and multifaceted. This causal complexity, however, by itself does nothing to undermine the validity of claims that there might be certain aggregate patterns of behaviour that result from these complex causes, patterns that we can define, measure and analyse – patterns that, perhaps, we must define, measure and analyse if we ever hope to tackle the far more complex question of what causes this pattern to arise…

Searle is, of course, criticising Chomsky – not some hypothetical concept of how one might approach the search for linguistic rules. It may well be that, in context, the critique applies as written (or, perhaps even more likely, that I’m missing the point…). My question is whether it is for any reason impossible to apply to the search for linguistic rules a distinction between the search for patterns, on the one hand, and the attempt to explain those patterns causally, on the other?

Searle vs. Chomsky Reprised: 30 Years On…

Folks interested in the Searle-Lakoff-Chomsky exchange discussed below, might also be interested in the following exchange, in which Searle revisits the topic thirty years on.

Searle, John (2002) “End of the Revolution” New York Review of Books vol. 49, no. 3, February 28.

Bromberger, Sylvain (2002) “Chomsky’s Revolution” New York Review of Books vol. 49, no. 7, April 25 (with reply by John Searle).

Chomsky, Noam (2002) “Chomsky’s Revolution: An Exchange” New York Review of Books vol. 49, no 12, July 18 (with reply by John Searle).

I should note that Searle’s initial volley is available only to subscribers, although the other two pieces are open for public view.

I’ve also decided that this extended digression into Chomsky brings out the worst in the reading group: when I pointed the other members to this exchange, and also mentioned that Searle’s piece was available only to subscribers, the following email exchange ensued:

First response: “After a brief review it strikes me as wrong in general to criticise Chomsky in public…”

My reply: “but what goes on between consenting adults in private is perfectly fine…”

Third response: “Unless one of the parties is manufacturing consent…”

Calling All Dubious Ethnographers

The GSSSP’s biannual HDR Conference is rolling around again and, following up on an interesting debate that took place at the last panel over whether the work that I and others are doing “counts” as ethnographic research, I’m trying to put together a panel for the 22 November conference on the theme of “Dubious Ethnography”. If any RMIT HDR students have projects that fall into ethnographic grey areas, and would like to reflect on the relationship between their methodology and more conventional understandings of ethnographic work, leave a comment or send through an email. Even if you aren’t interested in presenting, if you have questions or can think of topics you’d be interested in hearing such a panel address, let me know.

Reading Group Sing-Along

In the somewhat unlikely event that anyone desires to follow along with the Reading Group from a distance, I thought I’d pass on the links to what we’ve been discussing. Between last week and this, we spent a bit too long reading somewhat anarchistically, each of us browsing in and around debates over Chomsky’s linguistic writings without settling on much in the way of a preferred common text. In the end, the common text therefore ended up being a fairly light read – a useful bit of intellectual history, embodied in a sprawling, time-delayed discussion between Searle, Gewirth, Lakoff and Chomsky published in the New York Review of Books in the early 1970s.

The specific articles are available online:

Searle, John (1972) “A Special Supplement: Chomsky’s Revolution in Linguistics” New York Review of Books vol. 18, no. 12, June 29.

Lakoff, George (1973) “Deep Language” New York Review of Books vol. 20, no. 1, February 8.

Gewirth, Alan (1973) “The Sleeping Chess Player” New York Review of Books vol. 20, no. 2, February 22.

Chomsky, Noam (1973) “Chomsky Replies” New York Review of Books vol. 20, no. 12, July 19.

Searle’s article provides a quite engaging and readable intellectual history, from the perspective of the early 1970s, of the revolution in linguistics that was sparked by Chomsky’s work. Searle summarises, in a fairly general way, what he presents as a Kuhnian revolution in linguistics, in which Chomsky mobilised accumulated empirical anomalies to undermine the credibility of structuralist and behaviourist approaches to linguistics, and to create a space for the new paradigm of generative and transformational grammar. In Searle’s account, however, this revolution has not ended with Chomsky triumphant: instead, Searle portrays Chomsky as sidelined by his own revolution, pushed to the edges by some of his own best and brightest students who, responding to further empirical anomalies, have displaced syntax from the pride of place Chomsky assigns to it, and moved toward a rapprochement with semantics.

Along the way, Searle contests Chomsky’s claim to be heir to an earlier rationalist philosophical tradition, questions Chomsky’s attempt to use his work on syntax to draw conclusions about any innate linguistic faculty or deep structure of the mind, and argues that Chomsky’s work represents an untenable attempt to analyse language severed from its function of facilitating purposive communication. Searle’s critical aim is thus to restrict the reach of Chomsky’s concepts – to argue that Chomsky’s revolution is confined to the study of syntax, and therefore leaves untouched issues of meaning and of language as a purposive, contextual, social practice – issues that Searle, given his own theoretical focus on speech act theory, finds more central.

The other contributions to this discussion are briefer, and less satisfying, but give a sense of some of the contested issues within Searle’s account. Lakoff’s piece makes sweeping, dramatic dismissals of Chomsky’s work – arguing that core elements have been disproven but, unfortunately for our inexperienced eyes, not pointing to some of the works that could substantiate this claim. (Searle’s original article, by contrast, provides a nice potted bibliography to guide a reader through the milestones in the intellectual history of the Chomsky revolution, and was thus quite useful.)

A large portion of the additional commentary revolves around debunking Chomsky’s claim to be heir to a long rationalist philosophical tradition – a critical focus that left at least a couple of the reading group members puzzled, not because we believe it is necessarily incorrect, but because it seems like the kind of claim that can easily be severed from Chomsky’s more analytically central arguments about syntax: Chomsky may think it important to establish himself as the latter-day Descartes but, to be honest, if I were intending to write a critique of Chomsky’s approach, I’d position this as more of a side issue, and focus on more analytically and empirically central claims. We similarly felt that much of the debate over innate linguistic faculties – although undoubtedly important to Chomsky, and certainly worth debating for its intrinsic interest – was nevertheless not as intrinsically bound as Chomsky might believe to his research into syntax.

Our goal for next week is to provide ourselves with a better basis for assessing these perhaps over-hasty reactions. We are reading the third edition of Chomsky’s Language and Mind, which is a collection of essays, the core of which were originally delivered as lectures in the late 1960s, recently republished with some material from 2004. We’ll also be looking at the chapter titled “Public Language” from Ian Hacking’s Historical Ontology.

After our meeting next week, we’ll have a long hiatus, as one (two?) of our group members will spend some time travelling to more interesting places (although, if I might suggest, Chicago in the wintertime might not have been the best choice)… We have a general notion that we should use this long break to dive into some more complex material than we can usually cover in our weekly meetings. Whether we remain with our current linguistic focus or shift to other themes remains to be decided. Suggestions would be welcome…

Pragmatic Considerations

For the past several months, I’ve obviously been experimenting with vocabulary from the tradition of pragmatist philosophy – a tradition with which I have a somewhat ambivalent relationship. I’m currently working through James and Dewey, preparing for some more extensive writing on the topic, but wanted to put in a placeholder for a few of the elements of the tradition I think I’d need to disentangle, in order to make sense of what I feel comfortable appropriating, in which ways, from this tradition.

First there’s the issue of disentangling the various strands of the pragmatist approach to adjudicating truth claims. As I understand it (and I’ll readily admit my understanding may be quite flawed at this stage), pragmatism seeks to dissolve certain recurrent philosophical disputes when it is possible to argue that competing philsophical and scientific positions have no discernibly different practical consequences – a difference that makes no difference is no difference… At the same time, philosophical and scientific positions that do have differing practical outcomes can be judged according to the desirability of those outcomes.

The judgment of practical outcomes – the standards that someone would use to assess one outcome to be better, on a practical level, than another – seems, based on my current (admittedly preliminary) understanding of this tradition, to be somewhat fraught. The texts I have read seem to struggle around the issue – appealing to evolutionary notions of cumulative knowledge in some texts, and to local cultural ideals in others. To me, the concept that something becomes “true” to the extent that it has a useful practical consequence demands an examination of what conditions something to have practical consequences of a particular sort, what conditions us to prefer particular practical consequences, and, self-reflexively, why we suddenly find it plausible to look to practical consequences as a touchstone of truth… Although I suspect that I won’t find satisfactory answers to these questions within the tradition, I like the strong commitment that it should in principle be possible to adjudicate competing truth claims without an appeal to transhistorical absolutes, and am interested in finding a better way to flesh out this intuition.

At the same time, the tradition seems to me not to consider why particular philosophical and scientific debates arise: if it can in fact be demonstrated that two opposing philosophical or scientific positions cannot be differentiated in their practical effect, to me this deepens the mystery, rather than dissolves it – how should we understand the appeal (particularly, the long-term or mass appeal) of positions that, from the standpoint of pragmatist philosophy, have no “cash value”? Even where we can differentiate among philosophical positions with reference to their practical impacts, by itself the ability to make this judgment doesn’t give us much purchase on why particular kinds of philosophical or scientific concepts arise and become empirically persuasive, in particular times and places. I recognise, of course, that I think it important to understand such issues because I believe this is how we will ultimately come closer to developing a more historically-embedded understanding of how to adjudicate competing truth claims – a position that needn’t be shared by pragmatist philosophers…

Happy to take criticism on the grounds that I have fundamentally misunderstood the tradition – while I’m trying to make sense of what I’m reading, I’m painfully aware that this doesn’t mean I’m succeeding…

On the Uses of History

Scott Eric Kaufman over at Acephalous is having a moment of doubt over whether it was such a good idea to spend several years of his life researching a writer somewhat off the literary beaten path. In a post titled “Fœtid Historical Romances & Their Effect on Expectations”, he worries:

Works outside the canon may be, as my betters have argued, of historical import—but sometimes neglected works have been abandoned with good reason.

While Scott is searching for justification for his object of study, I’m looking for reasons to procrastinate from my course preparation for this coming week – and thought I might as well put the two things together. I thought perhaps Benjamin’s On the Concept of History might provide some motivation for Scott (and others of us currently facing this all-too-common worry within the research process).

First, there’s the notion that, if Scott doesn’t preserve the historical memory of what he studies, it could be irrevocably lost:

…every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.

The preservation of the past without judgment as to its value (or, perhaps in Scott’s case, in spite of judgment about its value) even has emancipatory potential:

A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past-which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation a l’ordre du jour — and that day is Judgment Day.

And then there’s the notion that, if a bit of the past captures our current-day attention, this testifies to the contemporary historical resonance of that dimension of the past:

History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now. [Jetztzeit].* Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past.

Or are “Fœtid Historical Romances” beyond even Benjamin’s historical empathy?