Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Long Division

So I said I would wait until I finished my marking to continue my conversation with Sinthome about fantasy, desire and the standpoint of critique in Sinthome’s appropriation of Lacan. I lied. Marking still looms – and then the preparation of two presentations after that… But I’ll reply briefly nevertheless… ;-P

Sinthome’s full response is available at Larval Subjects, and focusses on responding to my question about whether Lacan’s approach requires some kind of reference to a pre-symbolic realm that functions as a potential standpoint of critique. Sinthome argues that the concept of a “remainder” does not require any appeal to a pre-symbolic reality but, instead, should be conceptualised in terms of:

a twist, distortion, or ripple in the symbolic that isn’t a hold-over from a mythological pre-symbolic past (how could such a past fail to be mythological, given that we can only approach the world through language?), and that results from operations in the symbolic itself

I am certainly much more comfortable with this concept than I would be with an appeal to the pre-symbolic (and, of course, we all know that our primary objective in selecting a critical theory should be the preservation of my personal comfort… ;-P). But I have a further question, which relates essentially to how far this notion of critique can carry us, if our goal is to analyse potentials for political action. The notion that the operation of the symbolic carries its own internal tensions might ground the possibility for critique in a very abstract way – the possibility for humans to look beyond any particular social configuration and seek some kind of alternative, for example. Can it, though, get us any closer to understanding the rise and fall of any specific form of critique – a critique that expresses particular qualitative ideals, for example, or that organises itself in specific social movements?

I should note, of course, that this question won’t “connect” in any meaningful way, if someone isn’t interested in this sort of historically-specific analysis – it’s not an intrinsic problem for any theoretical tradition that it doesn’t do something that it doesn’t seek to do… But since I have a personal interest in understanding the rise and fall of specific intellectual and social movements at particular times – and since I see this interest as at least potentially useful for political practice – I’m always on the hunt for how a particular tradition can, and cannot, cast light on this kind of question.

So I guess my updated question is: granting this reading of Lacan, is there some way that this tradition then moves – either in Lacan’s work or in the work of his successors – to a more historically specified level? This question actually links back indirectly to the question I asked previously about the metaphoric connections between this description of desire, and Marx’s description of value: how does this tradition account for its own historical emergence? Presumably, if something about the operation of the symbolic creates this “overhang” – this nonencompassed remainder – this would have always been the case, since the symbolic is an intrinsic element of human thought. Why, then, have we only come to articulate this potential, in this way, at this time? Would a better understanding of this issue, perhaps, allow us to tease out clearer relationships between what might be genuinely transhistorical and grounded in something like “human potential”, and what might be the determinate potentials of our own time and place?

2 responses to “Long Division

  1. Sinthome November 20, 2006 at 11:22 am

    Taking a break from grading… I think this is a fair question and that the remainder is far from being unambiguous. Recently a student responded to a question on Descartes on one of my in-class essays by giving a “philosophical” analysis of the merits of various icecreams. Is this an instance of a remainder? I’m not sure, but it does seem like it was a sort of revolt that simultaneously obeyed the command of the law. On the one hand, she was obeying the command to do the assignment by writing anything at all. On the other hand, she was performatively demonstrating the absurdity of the question or the assignment (it’s lack of relevance, perhaps, to her) by taking something mundane, ordinary, and unrelated to Descartes, and making it the topic of her essay. No doubt she was also hedging her bets and trying to get a chuckle out of me by “being cute” so as to blunt any offense on my part.

    It seems to me that is a good example of a student expressing alienation with regard to the university discourse and reacting to that alienation in a defiant way. Sometimes, I think, as professors we can be a bit like the proverbial wicked cowboy in the old Westerns that shoots his gun at the feet of the bartender or waiter, demanding that he dance. Oh sure, we say we don’t do this, but in demanding that students think in a particular way with regard to philosophy or political theory or whatnot, isn’t a little of that going on? I admired my student for her defiance and revolt, for the manner in which she hinted that I was turning her into a “split subject” ($) with my questions, but by the same token it seems like this was a particularly futile form of revolt that did more to simply steal back a little bit of lost jouissance– by feeling as if one had gamed the system and taken revenge –than to change the system.

    I guess, then, my claim would be that the existence of a remainder is a necessary condition for change, without being a sufficient condition. It seems to me that a lot of the questions you’re asking lately revolve around the issue of when conditions become sufficient. For instance, you’re focusing a lot on the historical moment and asking whether there wasn’t something unique to a particular historic moment that produced this specific structural transformation. From my end, there are two questions here: First, does this lead us back into a sort of fatalistic mechanical determinism as per more traditional interpretations of dialectical materialism (this isn’t necessarily a bad thing)? It seems to me that a lot of marxist social theory is today ignoring historical conditions out of a desire to a) find some hope that substantial change is possible despite the fact that such a possibility looks grim given the current nature of our social conditions, and b) to back off from determinist models of Marxism that are often today seen as having failed predictively, while also remaining marxist. Second, is there a way in which historical change and structural transformation might only look *necessary* retroactively or after the fact when they’ve been successful? For instance, is it possible that the French revolution might *not* have occured had it not been for the *decision* of a few engaged revolutionaries? Or, supposing that these revolutionaries would have preferred to simply read their books and not act, would others have *necessarily* arisen in their place?

  2. N Pepperell November 20, 2006 at 4:54 pm

    Beautiful questions – thank you for this…

    I won’t be able to answer completely – among other things, because I’m trying to work out these sorts of answers for myself, so they aren’t “on tap”, so to speak. But the questions are very important, and do deserve a proper answer, whether I’m the one who can provide it, or not…

    I suspect that I don’t think it’s possible to talk about “sufficient” conditions, or make firm forward-directed predictions, as opposed to retrospective interpretations. Even if it were possible to be predictive in this way, I suspect one could make a case that theorising this kind of lock-step, predictable historical process would have relatively little value for political practice – and, if one is wrong about the lock-step movement, of course, the consequences for political practice can be quite dire.

    My question is whether this is the only way to understand historical analysis – and I suspect that the answer depends, in part, on whether we perceive the object of historical analysis to be fundamentally one-dimensional. If not, then we are potentially talking about an analysis of a complex historical dynamic – one which may have nonlinear patterns whose movements, while not subject to precise prediction, may still be subject to an analysis that can cast light on what sorts of ideals and movements are historically plausible – are more likely to arise – at a particular moment in time.

    In terms of your specific example of our bookworm revolutionaries who get distracted on the way to the revolution (perhaps they lived too near the Seminary Co-op…): I believe it can make a profound difference historically, which individuals or groups choose to participate in particular periods. I suspect it can be particularly important how transformations come to be articulated – and there are always, particularly early in a transformation, competing articulations. I don’t think a theorist can predict which articulation will “win” such a conflict – there are very contingent elements to hands-on political contestation, and I tend to think these contests occur at a different level of abstraction, at least relative to the kind of theory I personally engage in…

    What a theorist might be able to do, though, is get a feel for the connections between different ideals, movements and shifts in social practice – sufficient to help a movement recognise when it is actually reformist (I should indicate that I have no problem with reformist movements – my goal is not at all to criticise movements for not being revolutionary enough – but I do tend to get worried by reformist movements that misrecognise themselves as revolutionary, the consequences are often not good – at best you get frivolous critiques of ice cream flavours – at worst you get far more terrible actions, justified in the name of a dramatic social reconfiguration that will – and here I think it is possible to be predictive in specific instances – never come…). And also sufficient to help a movement not overreact to transformation – not to throw out useful insights from an earlier period, or to misrecognise a structural shift for an epochal break…

    I’d have to develop the points above in much greater detail – perhaps even in order to explain why I think it’s important to be able to do this… I’m not sure I can do that now…

    On another level, I should perhaps indicate that I might be a bit of an outlier, in terms of how I read the present moment: I don’t generally perceive things as being as grim as some others do. Some of this relates to how I understand capitalism – which is, generally, as a system that is actually intrinsically productive of pressures toward the realisation of some crucially important, humanising political ideals, for structural reasons that are far more abstract than offered in the standard triumphalist narrative of the rise of the global market. These pressures can and do co-exist with far more negative social dynamics – it’s not necessary to deny one to affirm the other. But understanding this complex interrelationship a bit better, I think, might get us a bit closer to grasping some of the complexity of the intellectual and political ideals that resonate in our time…

    I’ll apologise for not being terribly clear about what I mean. Most of this will be intrinsic – I am still working out what I think, and also how to talk about what I think. It may well be that, once this process is a bit further along, I’ll realise this is one enormous dead end… A conjunctural factor – and I’m not saying this to deflect criticism, just by way of apology for not being better able to rise to the occasion: good questions are really helpful to me, and I may have to come back to them once I’ve finally shaken this cold (I realise I’ve been complaining about this essentially since we’ve been having this conversation, which is no doubt quite annoying…). I start the day feeling fine, and then slowly feel like I’m swimming through increasingly viscous liquid – my writing must inevitably be clouded as a result…

    I do, though, want to keep talking and thinking about this issue: I think we can do more – that we need to do more – than just point to very abstract notions of the possibility of critique. Among other things, as a matter of historical humility: when we ground our own thoughts in notions of human potential, it raises intrinsically the question of why we can perceive something about this potential that other times could not. I suspect that it’s probably a bit more accurate to suggest that something about our recent experience has made certain conclusions a bit easier to draw, certain insights a bit easier to attain. In some cases, those conclusions and insights might still have some kind of transhistorical reference – even though we were more likely to stumble across them than other times; in other cases, they may be simply – but importantly, meaningfully – truths for us, and that can be quite enough for the moral orientation of actions in the present moment…

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