Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Hit and Run

Just after I completed my BA, I spent some time officially doing research in Paris, and unofficially wandering fairly randomly around Europe. One of my random wanders took me to Berlin, where I unexpectedly ran into a university friend when both of us approached the same ice cream vendor in Alexanderplatz. Neither had known the other was in the city, and the odds of this chance encounter seemed sufficiently remote that we decided it was fated that we spend our remaining time in Berlin together. For the rest of the day, we visited various places and collected other people before finally heading back to someone’s apartment late in the evening.

Somehow, along the way, we got into a vigorous discussion of some aspect of medieval theology. I lagged a bit behind the others, as I was still wearing a heavy backpack, and had become a bit out of breath from talking. As our group crossed a street, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that a car had run the light and was bearing down on us. The rest of the group was safely out of range, but it occurred to me that I might be in a bit of strife, and so I jumped forward to get out of the way. I cleared the car for the most part, although some protruberance on the back of my pack was hit, making a noise all out of proportion to the force of the impact.

Since I had been aware that something like this was unfolding, I just kept talking – there was, after all, an important theological nuance that needed explaining… From my friends’ point of view, however, the situation looked a bit more alarming: they felt the wind from a car rushing past at high speed, heard an awful noise, and saw me fly forward – all more-or-less simultaneous events, as far as they could tell. And, of course, there I was, like nothing had happened, still droning on about some bit of arcane trivia. They thought I had been struck by the car and was in shock. They would not be persuaded that I was okay, but instead forced me to surrender my backpack and sit down. It was only with some difficulty that I convinced them that they didn’t have to take me straight to hospital. (I probably could have lent more credibility to my case if I had stopped trying to return to whatever theological issue was so obsessing me at the time…) I’m not sure I ever convinced them that I wasn’t concussed.

I was just sitting down intending to return to a few dropped threads from the discussion of fantasy and critique, when this story flashed to mind. I think I’m worried that online discussions carry something of a tacit expiry date – an expectation that, beyond a certain, fairly short, point in time, one won’t have to worry about getting back into the thought-space of an old post. And particularly in a case like this, where I first cited illness and then pushed the discussion aside in order to write a couple of mongrel speeches, it may be a bit uncouth to pick up a conversational thread. But I do have this tendency to keep talking…

As it is, I have only scattered thoughts, which I’m not sure I can articulate clearly at present in any event. I’ll raise them here as bookmarks and placeholders for later development. First, there is something that I like – that I need to think more about, in order to tease out what appeals – in Sinthome’s presentation of the concept of traversing fantasy as a process, among other things, of surrendering the notion of emancipation as a final, achievable, static endpoint (apologies for what is almost certainly a terrible presentation of this point – I usually get there in the end, but I am often inexcusably clumsy with new concepts at the outset). I suspect that I like this discussion because I’ve been worrying that I use phrases that suggest I think of the standpoint of critique in terms of the identification of some kind of overarching and determinate endpoint, when this is actually not how I think of this concept at all – I’m not sure my words express my thoughts… I worry also that I sometimes suggest that I view critique as a kind of “totality-eye-view” when, again, this isn’t how I think about what I’m trying to express.

I’ve been very irritated with myself, on re-reading some of the things I’ve written recently on the blog (and, for that matter, in my first presentation this week), because I’ve emphasised the importance of recognising specific views as partial – which by itself I think is accurate enough – but I’ve done this in a way that leaves open the interpretation that I somehow think that I (or some other critic) will then come along and speak with the voice of the “whole” – or that an ideal course of action somehow reflects the most overarching and dominant historical trend or structural pattern within a society. I don’t think this at all – but I need to learn better lessons from the kinds of critiques I write about other people: I need to ask for what I actually wish…

At the same time, I can’t quite go along with either Sinthome’s valorisation of the margins, or with the suggested vision of critique as an essentially random event that “comes to pierce a hole in the totalizing, static structure of knowledge”. I need to be cautious here: there would actually be ways to define and interpret the concept of the “margins”, and the concept of critique as expressive of essential contingency, that could be compatible with what I think – it’s just that, without careful qualification, I think the underlying metaphors are deeply misleading. I don’t perceive our current society or culture as a “totalizing, static structure of knowledge” – but as a conflictual whole, in whose conflicts we can then begin to understand the social and historical irritations that provoke the slow burn, as well as the occasional dramatic eruption, of critical sensibilities. At the same time, I’m not sure that I believe we can best conceptualise our social context in terms of “margins” and core – although of course there are groups that are scarred in a more brutal and direct way by existing forms of injustice. I’m reluctant, however, to see in this scarring a privileged critical insight: it might be simple justice if this were to be the case, but I’m not convinced that it is historically or psychologically plausible – again, unless one defines marginality in an unusual way that lies in tension with the standard imagery suggested by the term…

I suspect we’re stuck with being “insiders” – but insiders whose critical relationship with our own context can itself be taken as evidence that the context is not terribly unified. Then the question becomes how to position critique in relation to that disunited whole – a task that, I suspect, won’t involve taking the perspective of the whole, but also won’t involve taking the perspective of any one part (I would tend to follow Adorno in seeing the parts as scarred by the whole in which they have arisen). I suspect I’m talking about something like a process of becoming aware of the potentials suggested by the ways in which various parts interact to reproduce a conflictual whole – an awareness that can then give us a clearer sense of contingency and the potential for transformation… Regardless, I need to get to the point where I’m not using language that implies that some kind of historicised equivalent to a “view from nowhere” might be my understanding of a standpoint of critique… I need better words for expressing what I mean… And, evidently, I don’t seem inclined to stop talking until I find them… ;-P

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2 responses to “Hit and Run

  1. Joseph Kugelmass November 26, 2006 at 9:08 am

    Nice post! I’ll be interested to read your (evolving?) accounts of the conflictual social whole. I take this to be one of Foucault’s primary insights — his ability to represent the social as a ragged fabric of conflicts that can be interpreted at various scales; so that, viewed on the level of the individual life or event, one can see the social at its most incoherent and contingent, as something continually newly created. Meanwhile, it is still possible to pull back and discern generalized trends (say, towards discipline and away from physical punishment) that define epochs.

    It seems to me that we will eventually need broader ontological or phenomenological accounts of consciousness to supplement the excellent social mapping of Foucault and his kin, since he is a cipher on the reasons for these continual small wars.

    So, this work overlaps greatly with an area I want to pursue further: the supposed “paradox” of critique (i.e. the problem of where one stands to make a critique), and the philosophies of the social-as-absolute that make critique appear impossible.

    I wonder how our metaphors affect this work. I am using a fabric metaphor; Foucault uses metaphors taken from “micro-physics”; and Adorno is using a fleshly metaphor.

  2. N Pepperell November 26, 2006 at 7:08 pm

    Mutating, certainly – evolving, we can only hope…

    First the things I can say quickly: yes, we need better ontological and phenomenological accounts – and yes, these relate directly to the issue of how we can conceptualise that immanent critique need not be “paradoxical” or self-contradictory. And: yes, I think the metaphors we choose to visualise these things do affect our work – particularly because I think we’re trying to grasp things that are actually quite difficult to conceptualise, so our metaphors don’t have as many immediate checks and balances from experience as would be ideal. This isn’t even getting into the problems that arise from trying to communicate through metaphors that have intuitively different meanings to other people…

    In terms of more complex issues: I also agree that grasping different scales of social experience is important – although I don’t think that scale is the only way to think about what I tend to think of as complex layers of historical causation. The metaphor of scale tends to be mapped onto the notion of abstraction – such that we think of the local as being concrete, and then we think of achieving more abstract concepts as we aggregate and “cumulate” these local experiences.

    This process will capture certain things (among other issues, some patterns of social practice will become visible only at a level that can be perceived via statistical analysis, for example, but may not be visible to local lived experience in any way), but this isn’t the only way to think of abstraction. I think it is also possible for certain kinds of very local practices – individual practices – also to have a qualitatively abstract character – the sort of thing Marx kept trying to articulate, I think, when he talked endlessly about how the specific products of a particular moment in history come to present themselves, in alienated form, as universal attributes of humankind… This isn’t the kind of abstraction you reach via quantitative aggregation: it’s a qualitative characteristic of a concrete practice… (I know I’m not explaining this very well – it’s another one of these things that I’m just on the verge of grasping, but can’t quite articulate – and, as always, once I can articulate it clearly, I may well find that it’s a rubbish concept… ;-P)

    Then you have to work out how this alternative concept of abstraction might itself play out in different spatial and temporal scales. I’ve occasionally played with fractal metaphors for this, although I’m far from wedded to them (and, of course, again I’m using the concept only metaphorically – not making any claim for mathematical rigour). But, again, I suspect this is the status that Marx’s category of the “commodity” holds – if you get away from thinking of this term as a thing that happens to be traded on a market, and begin thinking of it as a qualitative description of a structure of social practice that tends to generate a specific historical pattern, then you can potentially talk about very local, concrete, everyday interactions – as well as very large-scale historical dynamics – as both being describable in terms of a similar homologous structure. I’m not suggesting here we necessarily lean on Marx’s notion of what this structure would be – only that I think the underlying theoretical intention might have been similar.

    I’ve also occasionally used probabilistic metaphors – here to compensate for problems in what you’ve called “philosophies of social-as-absolute” – trying to grasp the ways in which a particular social context can make certain choices more plausible, more likely to occur, than others, without however predetermining that specific choices must necessarily be made…

    But this is all probably just a jumble… It’s also an area, obviously, that I want to pursue – and that is much more easily pursued, I think, with some skilled and thoughtful interlocutors… 🙂

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