Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Crouching Tiger

I’ve been meaning for some days to pick up a few of the threads from Sinthome’s recent posts on identity and critique. Picking up these threads now, of course, is fraught with danger, as I might trigger the Lacan-filter my fellow reading group members have threatened to install. {As I wrote this sentence, a fire alarm went off in my building, dislodging me not only from my office, but from the coffee shop to which I often retreat to write… Can one think critical thoughts in an alien coffee shop? We’ll see… Is the reading group behind this dislocation? I have my suspicions…}

I’ll focus most of my attention here on Sinthome’s haunting and brilliant discussion of the psychological consequences (causes?) of engaging with the potential for fundamental transformation, as sketched in the post titled “Enlightenment and Opening Possibilities”. Before I move to this topic, though, I’ll say just a few things on the more recent post on “The Diacritical Production of Identity” – if only to explain why I focus my commentary on the earlier of what, I gather, were written as two interrelated posts on the concept of the diacritical construction of identity.

In the post on “The Diacritical Production of Identity”, Sinthome tackles several elements of Lacan’s thought that are often cited as particularly controversial – the use of mathematical metaphors, the concept of the woman as the symptom of the man, etc. Sinthome traverses these elements of Lacan’s thought lightly, bracketing problematic readings, while teasing out a reading productive for critique. My question – and the reason I won’t write at length on this topic here – is whether these elements of Lacan’s thought, even read for their highest critical potential, ever move beyond being a very elaborate theoretical justification for what, at base, I suspect is a fairly noncontroversial ontological claim: that no form of domination (or, for that matter, freedom) ever fully succeeds in subsuming all aspects of consciousness or practice.

I’ve never found this claim controversial and – I confess this may be a fundamental conceptual failure on my part – I haven’t yet understood how any of the various theoretical elaborations of this claim contribute more to critical practice than the simple empirical experience of nonsubsumption ever could? I’m not so much critical of the theoretical framework, as I am uncertain whether this is really a battle that needs to be fought… Does theoretical reflection on this kind of abstract contingency give us any greater insight into the potentials for specific kinds of political action, in the particular contexts in which we must now act?

For this specific question, Sinthome’s earlier post seems much more productive. The motivating question for this post comes at the end:

What, then, today would it mean to repeat the Enlightenment, in an age following Freud and Marx?

Sinthome prepares the reader for this question with a discussion of the ways in which various Enlightenment thinkers used the inspiration provided by their reading of classical antiquity to leap outside of their time – to gain critical distance that then allowed them to react back upon and transform their own historical moment. Sinthome treats this appropriation of history with critical empathy – acknowledging that the Enlightenment interpretation of classical antiquity was probably “wrong” in its various factual particulars, but also arguing that this creative misinterpretation was enormously productive for specifically revolutionary thought. In Sinthome’s account, the myth of antiquity constructed by the Enlightenment thinkers allowed them to produce their own ground – a ground from the standpoint of which they could then reach out and tranform their own historical moment. Sinthome challenges us: can we do something similar now – perhaps by negotiating our own creative historical relationship with our idealised vision of the Enlightenment itself?

There are too many similarities not to note the parallels between Sinthome’s comments, and Benjamin’s analysis of the relationship of revolutionary movements to the continuum of history. Benjamin offers, I think, a more critically-inflected perspective on the tendency of revolutionary movements to cloak their goals in the mantle 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. This jump, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class give the commands. The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution.

Benjamin’s vision is in some respects the inverse of Sinthome’s: where Sinthome sees the creative appropriation of the past as a means for breaking fundamentally with the present – for achieving critical distance in relation to our current moment in time – Benjamin suggests that our elective affinity for particular moments of history may, in fact, be very much motivated (if unconsciously) by present-day concerns. Sinthome and Benjamin both hold that we are not seeing the past for what it really is, but where Sinthome sees an opportunity for achieving critical distance, Benjamin worries about how contemporary fashions undermine and distort even our relationship to history: “even the dead” Benjamin warns, “will not be safe from the enemy if he wins”.

At the same time, though, Benjamin collapses his notion of the social structuration of perception into the concept of class domination – his main concern is how our perceptions of the past are distorted by the way in which they take “place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands”. He then holds out as an alternative, more revolutionary, relationship to history something that sounds rather like a concept that Sinthome canvassed – and that caused me to balk – in an earlier round of this discussion: Sinthome suggested a concept of critique as an event that “comes to pierce a hole in the totalizing, static structure of knowledge”; Benjamin speaks of a “leap in the open air of history”. These tacitly antinomic visions of critique always cause me to wonder: Do we have no alternatives, other than thinking of lockstep social determination, or some form of very abstract anti-determination? Can we not think of concepts that might help us express how Benjamin’s tiger might have scented – and gone hunting for – potentials for transformation? Can we not think of ourselves as fully social creatures, socialised into a context that shouts to us that more is possible – that we are holding ourselves back?

I think it is possible to develop theoretical concepts that would allow us to begin thinking about our socialisation in this way – and that therefore move beyond the theoretical articulation of something like abstract contingency, and into the theoretical articulation of the qualitatively specific ways in which we are socialised to long for more than we permit ourselves to have. I also suspect that concepts like class domination, marginality, and similar terms related to divisions between social groups might not be the easiest route into this alternative concept of critical standpoint – that at least some critical concepts may be more generally socialised within our historical moment than these categories allow us easily to capture.

But these are preliminary thoughts: the question, the project, the concept of critical theory are the more important things. We need to ask ourselves: Do we believe the principal aim of critical theory should be to ground the possibility for an abstractly contingent rupture with our historical moment? Or do we believe that, as creatures of our time, we can use critical theory to equip ourselves to demand our birthrights – to ask for the fuller realisation of the potentials that, unawares, we have constituted in alienated form? Returning to Benjamin, perhaps it is our own, contemporary history that we need to make “citable in all its moments” – perhaps we need to take more seriously the notion that the “kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed”. Perhaps we need to ask what a critical theory might look like, if this were its concept, if these were its grounds.

I’ve left aside in this response what was perhaps the most poignant dimension of Sinthome’s post: a reading of Hume, to draw out the psychological consequences of experiencing oneself achieving critical distance on one’s own time. It’s a beautiful reading – better for people to look at the original, than for me to try to distill it into some pale synopsis. It’s an open question whether it might induce less vertigo, if someone were to understand critical distance as a possibility made available within one’s own moment in time – or perhaps the sense of fundamental isolation would be more intense, because the goal of communicating critical insights might seem tantalisingly close? I’m not prepared even to speculate… Sinthome would be more skilled at this line of interpretation than I am, in any event… I’ll leave the issue of the psychology of critique aside, then, for a future discussion…

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