Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Fragments on Critical Spaces and Times

I seem to be writing a lot of posts lately that contain concepts that I’m not quite ready to express fully – this will be another of “those” posts, I’m afraid.

I wanted to pick up, in a brief and not quite adequate way, on two comments made on other blogs, because I think they each suggest important issues to be taken into account when thinking about the construction of a critical theory. The first is a comment made by belledame222 in an ongoing discussion at The Kugelmass Episodes. Belledame criticises the somewhat widespread tendency to equate “the margins” with “critical standpoint”:

One of the other main radical feminist bloggers, Heart, actually calls her space “The Margins.” i think there is this idea, you know, that freedom exists in the margins precisely because they -are- the margins.

trouble is, if you’re really making claims for revolutionary transformation, sooner or later you’re going to have to figure out a way to move from margin to center (as bell hooks once put it).

otherwise you’re just basically huddling together and licking wounds, telling comforting stories to each other, it seems to me.

To belledame’s concerns, I would add that this vision of critique – that you need somehow to be “outside” what you’re criticising in order to achieve critical distance – can:

(1) be morally underdetermined: some very undesirable movements can also be marginalised – and it may, in fact, be a very important political goal to make sure that some movements remain marginalised – and that other political movements become so… Valorising “the margins” by dint of their marginality often disguises the fact that we tacitly mean “our” margins: that we have a quite specific set of normative ideals that we assume are part of the “package” of marginality. Personally, I would rather develop critical concepts that express those normative ideals directly, rather than bundling them in with an overarching (and, for reasons discussed below, perhaps not even intrinsically connected) category like “marginality”. Otherwise, we risk getting what we asked for, rather than what we wished for – a fate suffered by many well-intentioned social and political movements…

(2) flatten the “core”: the move to margins (like the move to human nature, the appeal to theology or other ways of getting “outside” our social context) operates on the assumption that our social context is fundamentally one-dimensional: that tensions and conflicts might exist on the perimeters, or between our social context and something that we perceive as fundamentally different, but not as integral aspects of a single, conflicted social form. I appreciate that this is, to some degree, an “empirical” question, but I think it’s important not to reject out of hand the possibility of our social world as a contradictory entity – in whose contradictions we can perhaps begin to recognise some of the historical irritants that provoke us to dream that better things are possible. We may not need to be “outside” or on the “margins” to achieve critical distance.

These issues are connected, in ways I’m not sure I’m ready to express, to an issue raised by sinthome at Larval Subjects yesterday. The US election outcome leads sinthome to reflect on the need to recognise how rapidly historical transformation can sometimes be achieved:

I’m still in a bit of shock as to what happened last night. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not expecting momentous changes or for Democrats to suddenly begin acting like genuine progressives. Yet this still is a ray of hope…. it is the hope produced in discerning that rhetoric alone does not win the day or create reality. That is, occurances like this remind me that things are possible… They rescue me from my Adorno-esque pessimism.

A few months ago I would not have believed this possible and I find that this experience of change significantly calls into question a number of my theoretical axioms (I’ve been working through these shifts in theory for a number of weeks on this blog). How is it that forms of social configuration that seem like iron can so quickly dissipate like so much morning mist? The Mayans had a thriving culture that suddenly disappeared. They didn’t disappear as a result of some natural catastrophe (as far as we know) or through depleting natural resources. No doubt the Mayans believed their culture and state to be eternal. Yet it disappeared. How does such surprising and sudden change take place? It seems to me that good social theory help us to see the contingency of the present state of things, that there are other possibilities, that other collectives, subjects, and ways of feeling are possible. Just as psychonalysis allows the analysand to overcome the closure of their universe of desiring, discovering new possibilities where they never before thought they were possible, good social theory creates possibilities where before only the iron laws of historical necessity and power were discerned. Good social theory reminds us of the essential fragility and finitude of the power relations holding together a particular type of collective.

I reserve judgment on the Mayans ;-P, but I think that modern history does demonstrate that quite dramatic and rapid historical transformations – of institutional structures, customs, forms of thought – are possible (it is conceivable that such rapid changes are, in some ways, more possible than incrementalist ones, if we’re talking about achieving fundamental transformations – but I haven’t thought about this issue sufficiently to try to turn this into a strong claim…). And I agree that it should be a central goal for critical theory to cast light on why and how this happens – and that this goal sits in tension with approaches that emphasise “iron laws of historical necessity”.

At the same time, the significant transformations that we have witnessed within the modern era – including many transformations driven by movements that understood themselves as fundamentally revolutionary – can often, in retrospect, be interpreted as achievements that were moving with a broader “wave” of historical transformation – waves whose contours, perhaps, successful movements articulated more clearly than others, or which drove in any event toward complimentary goals… Revolutionary movements often suffer, I believe, from not adequately recognising the dynamic context in which they are operating – a context that may make certain political goals easier to achieve at certain times, that entails that very few political achievements can be regarded as permanent “advances”, and that often punishes movements by rewarding them with what they asked for (which is often the destruction of older social institutions), while depriving them of the free society for which they wished…

My goal here is not to drive toward pessimism. Modernity has constantly irritated us with dreams that more is possible, while also embedding us within an incredibly complex, dynamic, unintentional historical context that provides treacherous footing for conscious political practice. I think we need to develop better theoretical frameworks precisely to understand potentials for conscious political action within such a context – and I think that belledame and sinthome have both hit on some of the concepts we need to move beyond, if we want to work toward a better understanding of the potentials and limitations of particular forms of political practice…

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8 responses to “Fragments on Critical Spaces and Times

  1. Joseph Kugelmass November 10, 2006 at 12:28 pm

    This makes plenty of sense to me. A couple of thoughts:

    First, the false hypothesis of consistency and stability in the mainstream, or what you call the “core,” is also a hypothesis about consciousness. Following sinthome’s lead to an extent, I would argue that the internal contradictions that make critique possible from “within” a system reflect contradictions within consciousness. What Heidegger (and later Sartre) would call the “ek-static” (projective) nature of consciousness implies a state of continual sunderance from ourselves and our ideological certainties.

    Second, I agree with the idea, suggested in your post, that we should not be too hasty in declaring a giant leap forward. The election in the United States of Nancy Pelosi to the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives does not mean a solution to the ongoing, global problems of widespread, localized conflict and environmental devastation. When those endemic problems take their next toll, in the form of weather disasters, fuel shortages, terrorist acts, or localized war, we will risk regressing back to a politics of fear.

    Finally, I want to emphasize the importance of artefactual sedimentation in the achievement of progress. The Internet (not just blogs, of course, but also political, journalistic, and organizational websites of all kind) is one place where one can see progressive ideas taking hold, being re-stated simultaneously in many places, and surviving the cold winters of reactionary politics. The process by which historical documents, such as Western constitutional texts or the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” accumulate to make practices like slavery harder and harder to justify, has accelerated in a fashion that I think bodes well for the larger “waves” of political change.

  2. belledame222 November 10, 2006 at 12:57 pm

    Well, speaking of Hegel, it was Bitch | Lab who was the first (that I’d heard) who made the connection between the idea that the slave must know more than the master (i.e. both the slave’s world and the master’s world, as opposed to the master whose “privilege” of being cheerfully oblivious to any world but his own could also/actually be a blind spot and thus a weakness) and the tendency on the loosely-defined left–including, but not at all limited to, radical feminism–to paint itself into a “marginal” corner. Power corrupts, yah, that old truism; and of course simple ineffectuality can’t be underestimated; but -also,- this idea that actually there’s something vital to be lost by becoming “mainstream.”

    You can see this in pretty much so many words; recently I was reading this astonishingly annoying little collection of radfem essays, “The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism,” ed Dorchen Leidholdt and Janice Raymond, and this leapt out at me (not literally) from Sonia Johnson, “Taking Our Eyes Off the Guys:”

    “There are many reasons for our being in the only position, historically speaking, to change things. One of these is the basic paradox of tyranny, that the oppressors are always less free than the oppressed. Another is that as women, we are truly outside men’s system. Virginia Woolf said that, you know. She said in ‘Three Guineas’ that women are the Society of the Outsiders, that that’s where we have our power.”

    Which, yes; because if there’s one model i really look to for Revolutionary transformation, it’s Virginia Woolf. i mean, her and Sylvia Plath, really.

    or, you know what, even better: let’s all go insane and start creeping around in our hideous yellow wallpaper! that’ll learn ’em!

    yeah. part of the problem, too, i suspect, is the romanticization of one’s own oppression/”outsider” status that inevitably seems to arise from this sort of position. personally: really over it. i don’t want to stay in the margins. i want to transform the whole thing from the center out (or vice-versa, whatever), and take up space wherever i damn place.

  3. belledame222 November 10, 2006 at 1:10 pm

    >be morally underdetermined: some very undesirable movements can also be marginalised – and it may, in fact, be a very important political goal to make sure that some movements remain marginalised – and that other political movements become so…>

    Well, yes, there’s that, too.

    and on the converse side: it’s called -populism- for a -reason.- No, it’s not always great just because it’s popular, that’s quite true; on the other hand, i -really- mistrust folks who claim to be deeply concerned on behalf of the People and yet don’t seem to have much faith in or even liking for actual, you know, people.

    the combination of the anti-democratic impulse (and i definitely see that at Twisty Faster’s, for one example) with lip service to the idea that we don’t believe in hierarchical structure leads to some, erm, -interesting- places, ranging from Peoples’ Front of Judea vs. Judean Peoples’ Front all the way to actual (imo) cults. eventually the ineffectuality of no overt structure can be overcome by the inherent authoritarianism of the people involved; all it takes is a sufficiently charismatic leader. in a way that can actually work better, because the rules and hierarchies are all the more effective when -no one even acknowledges that they exist.-

    but anyway, back to your point: yah, there’s also an unfortunate tendency to assume that being widely disliked or protested or mocked automatically confers relevance. You know, so and so is -controversial.- seriously obnoxious, that. i mean, i’ve never known a troll who hasn’t believed the same damn thing, whether sie dresses it up in some sort of ideological hooha or fangeekdom or whether to switch the fork from hand to hand or not or any goddam thing in the world; or indeed nothing, except, “Everyone’s out to get MEEEEEEE!”

    “But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

    –Carl Sagan

  4. belledame222 November 10, 2006 at 1:12 pm

    uh, that’s “wherever i damn please,” above; although “place” works in idea, i suppose, if not syntax.

  5. Pingback: How to have reservations (aka The Political Post) « The Kugelmass Episodes

  6. N Pepperell November 10, 2006 at 7:48 pm

    Lots of good stuff here.

    Joseph – Yes, on all points. The issue of contradictions within consciousness is particularly important – and something I keep meaning to post more about, but just haven’t found the focus and the time. Again, this is something that people often talk about in terms of some kind of underlying psychological “nature” that lies in tension with some form of repressive social “artifice” – rather than trying to grasp both impulses toward greater freedom, and acquiescence in unfreedom, as potentially equally historical… But this is the kind of point I’d need to make at greater length, to have some chance of coherence…

    I’d be slightly more cautious here:

    I want to emphasize the importance of artefactual sedimentation in the achievement of progress

    Not because I disagree at all – I think this is an incredibly important goal for political practice. My cautionary note is simply that we must keep in mind that, while we can make progress through these sorts of actions, the progress we make is unfortunately never irrevocable – it must always be defended. Not recognising the potential reversability of our political achievements has, I think, significantly weakened our ability to defend goals already achieved… And, since everyone knows I haven’t met a problem I don’t want to throw Benjamin at, I’ll toss in the obligatory references:

    The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

    And:

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

    So, yes, we need to work for genuine progress – while being aware always of the fragility of what we have achieved.

    belledame222: I agree with everything you’ve said, but I think this may be my favourite comment ever:

    part of the problem, too, i suspect, is the romanticization of one’s own oppression/”outsider” status that inevitably seems to arise from this sort of position. personally: really over it. i don’t want to stay in the margins. i want to transform the whole thing from the center out (or vice-versa, whatever), and take up space wherever i damn please.

    Exactly.

  7. Sinthome November 11, 2006 at 1:48 pm

    Great post, N.Pepperell. I think you raise an extremely important point when you write “At the same time, the significant transformations that we have witnessed within the modern era – including many transformations driven by movements that understood themselves as fundamentally revolutionary – can often, in retrospect, be interpreted as achievements that were moving with a broader “wave” of historical transformation – waves whose contours, perhaps, successful movements articulated more clearly than others, or which drove in any event toward complimentary goals… Revolutionary movements often suffer, I believe, from not adequately recognising the dynamic context in which they are operating – a context that may make certain political goals easier to achieve at certain times, that entails that very few political achievements can be regarded as permanent “advances”, and that often punishes movements by rewarding them with what they asked for (which is often the destruction of older social institutions), while depriving them of the free society for which they wished…”

    I’m not quite sure what you have in mind by “broader waves of historical transformation” as it seems to me that this could include a lot, but it seems to me that a good deal of contemporary political theory is either focusing on structures of power or the possibilities of intervention. I think there’s an additional issue as well: why is it possible for interventions to work in one situation, where they fall on deaf ears in another situation? Here I think there’s a need to focus on other contributing factors: shifts in technology, changes in environment, changes in economy, and so on. That is, it seems that there are historical moments that are particularly ripe for cultural transformation as a result of changes that have taken place elsewhere. I’m not sure how vast these factors are, but it does raise the question of whether struggling for change at certain historical moments might not be impotent. That’s not quite the right way to phrase things as there always has to be a labor of change seeking to transform the social codes governing the situation, yet nonetheless conditions may be such that transformation can’t be produced materially at that point in time.

  8. N Pepperell November 11, 2006 at 6:23 pm

    That’s probably because I’m not quite sure what I mean by “broader waves of historical transformation” either – although I am trying to gesture at the question you raise: how do we understand why, sometimes, proposals for transformation “work”, while at other times they don’t – and how do we also understand why proposals for transformation sometimes work in only very partial ways, which can sometimes omit those elements that might have been most central in the hearts and minds of those pushing for transformation?

    I’d agree that changes in technology, environment, economy – changes in social practices – contribute. I’ve played around in many posts here over the past several months with the idea that the changes involved might potentially be, in the first instance, quite small – that a new technology, or a new institution, or some fairly insignificant kind of practice might introduce a slightly novel way of looking at the world – a new form of perception and thought with which we then begin to experiment: can we apply this here? What about there?

    In the process, we may sometimes find that we make small changes to other dimensions of our practice – changes that make things more compatible with our novel form of perception. The more this happens, the more what was once “novelty” begins to morph into something like “common sense” – and perhaps even acquire an air of inevitability or naturalness… Movements highly attuned to these sorts of shifts can, I think, both “ride” them – and also shape and channel the shifts themselves in particular ways – with ambivalent results: mobilising potentials for transformation, but also narrowing and limiting the potentials we seize…

    But I really don’t want to make anything like a strong claim here – I’m playing with ways of thinking about these issues, rather than unfolding a “theory”…

    In terms of your question about whether particular movements may, in certain periods, be beating their collective head against a wall: it’s a very tricky thing. If you think of people like Hayek or Friedman, for example: they spent a very, very long time in the wilderness – time that might well have helped them to be more prepared to seize their moment when the historical winds shifted… Hayek, at least, was quite aware that he was engaged in a very long-term political and intellectual project – perhaps, recognised consciously and understood clearly, long periods of intellectual and political exile can help a movement recognise and seize its opportunities.

    At the same time, long periods of relative success can dull the reflexes: social democratic parties, generally, I think largely sat stunned and incredulous when everything began to unravel around them in the 1970s – not expecting a significant transformation, believing that past accomplishments could not be reversed, and too closely identified with older social, political and economic forms to seize the transformation as an opportunity to improve things further: they were ready victims for movements more savvy to the times, who could articulate and make sense of profound changes everyone could feel, but which old narratives could not render meaningful…

    But all of this is too bold and broad-brush: I’ve spent the day trying (and largely not succeeding) to write other things, which is probably not the best foundation for speculating on important things… ;-P

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