Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: November 2006


There seems be this unusual theory floating around the school of social science that I might be the best person to coordinate our quantitative research methods course – a “common course architecture” course aimed at second-year undergraduates from various programs. I’m finding this theory a bit hard to believe, personally, but others seem not to share my scepticism. Read more of this post

I’ll Have the Usual

My inbox fills with bad puns and witty comments again – reading group members must have returned to Melbourne… Pinker’s Language Instinct. Monday. Usual time. Usual place. Usual suspects.

We will, however, continue to have a parallel online discussion in some form or other (looks over at G. Gollings, who might be trying to evade eye contact).

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

Dubious Text

So my talk for the “Dubious Ethnography” panel is out of the way – one down, one to go. I went through a particularly intense crisis of confidence about the whole thing yesterday, when the talk remained unwritten at 6 p.m., after an entire day filled with nothing but endless interruptions. It also didn’t seem promising that I have an intense sore throat and the beginnings of what feels like an ear infection – and, as I explained to the audience this morning, not being able to speak or hear seemed an unpromising beginning for a discussion…

In the end, though, I did enjoy giving the talk – and received some very good questions. Interestingly, the most positive and the most negative reactions related to my discussion of epistemology and critical judgment – which is somewhat amusing, as people generally just fall asleep when I discuss epistemology. Maybe I’m onto something with this narrative thing… ;-P

Some members of the audience really liked the notion of trying to understand the reasonableness of various positions in a local political conflict, while also trying to examine all of those positions critically for what they don’t quite grasp with reference to a more overarching and comprehensive vision of that context. One questioner in particular, though, was very unhappy with this proposal, really pressed me to declare a side – and then was unconvinced when I tried to explain that my main quarrel was not really with anything that was unfolding in the community where I research, but rather with certain frameworks with in the academic literature: that my main “side” was a critique of those academic positions.

I was challenged further to explain how this was an ethical position – don’t we ultimately all have to take sides with reference to what we are studying? Is it ethical to analyse the weaknesses in all competing positions without choosing a particular position we most strongly prefer? I suspect this is really, at base, not the universal and theoretical issue the questioner takes it to be, but more like an empirical and contingent question: depending on the conflict, it might be possible or impossible, ethical or unethical, to choose a side. My main purpose at the moment (not in this brief talk, which would be completely inadequate, but in the thesis) is to make plausible the notion that we can ground judgments in a recognition that some kinds of mistakes can be made by otherwise quite reasonable and moral people, who have seized upon a piece of their social context, confused that piece for the whole – and act as though everyone else has done the same… The context will then determine whether these judgments drive in favour of a form of political movement actually playing itself out on the ground in a particular dispute. I don’t think my answer was adequate – I’ll have to work on explaining what I mean.

Anyone who’d like a copy of the talk can email, with the caveat that, as always, the written version is not quite what I actually said – I tend to watch audiences, dwell on things that seem to get people nodding in agreement, and skip lightly over things that seem to get people nodding off… I’ll leave readers to guess which sections of the text fell into which categories…

Now I have to collect my thoughts for tomorrow’s talk – which, for local readers, will be delivered as part of the Environment & Planning Lunchtime Seminar series, in 8.7.6, at 12:30 (attendance is free; BYO food…).

National Research Writing Month

Via Sarapen: a LiveJournal community dedicated to people who are trying to finish research theses. I gather the concept is to use the community to post commitments and progress updates on thesis writing, in the theory that the combination of group support and public accountability will decrease procrastination. The community is currently set to operate through the month of November, then recess for the holidays, and then resume in the new term.

Probably not my personal thing – I tend to terrify myself into meeting deadlines by scheduling… er… other deadlines: presentations, guest lectures or similar that will require me to prepare a chunk of what I need to write. I seem to need the “objectivity” of a real deadline, and I also get an extra productivity boost if I’m committed to something that will inspire guilt about what might happen if I don’t prepare adequately for something on which someone else depends… ;-P So I search for “opportunities” like this, if I’m feeling the lure of procrastination too deeply…

I have, though, been quietly trying to keep a personal commitment to posting or presenting something dissertation-related at least once a week, which I suppose is a similar concept…

But I thought someone out there might find the group useful (and, now that Sarapen has taken the plunge, it can properly be considered “International” Research Writing Month)…

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?

HDR Research Conference Panel: Dubious Ethnographers

I had mentioned previously that I’ve been involved in putting together a panel for the semi-annual Higher Degrees by Research Conference, on the general theme of “Dubious Ethnographers”. This panel was loosely conceived as a response to some of the questions raises at the last HDR panel I put together, where I received some questions about whether what I do “counts” as proper ethnography.

We now have firm times and such for the panel (just as well, given that we’re presenting on Wednesday!!!). Local readers are welcome to drop by for what will likely be a quite informal session. Attendance is free, but RSVP by Monday is required for anyone who wants to hang around for food. I’ve uploaded the full conference program. Attentive readers will note that I’m not the only member from the reading group who will be presenting. There is also an interesting discussion planned on the possibility of moving toward a more US-style model for Australian PhDs, a research ethics discussion, and many other interesting presentations of research student work-in-progress.

The full description of my panel, which meets at 10 a.m. in Storey Hall on Wednesday, 22 November, is attached below the fold. Read more of this post

Some Scattered Questions on Fantasy

Sinthome over at Larval Subjects has been engaged in an extended series of reflections on fantasy, desire and the orientation to political practice. Since I have only the most passing exposure to the tradition from which Sinthome writes, the chances of my misunderstanding the aim of these posts is somewhat high – nevertheless, I thought I’d pick up on a few of my associations while reading, without making a strong claim that these associations necessarily reflect accurately on the underlying text… For purposes of this post, I’ll focus on the first entry in this series – I may be able to discuss the others at a later time.

Sinthome begins by distinguishing two understandings of the relationship between “fantasy” and “desire”. One understanding, which Sinthome rejects, posits desire to be somehow anterior to fantasy – an understanding that drives an ontological wedge between desire and its manifestation in fantasy, and that risks the perception that desire is more “real” or more “natural” than the “artificial” or “arbitrary” fantasy in which it happens to become manifest. The other, which Sinthome presents as characteristic of Lacanian thought, sees desire and its mode of expression in fantasy as intrinsically and necessarily connected: desire is a substance that is always already embedded in some specific mode of appearance in fantasy, and therefore cannot meaningfully distilled out and considered as separately existing entity. And yet, at the same time, desire is promiscuous, mobile, restless – it must have an embodiment in some determinate fantasy and cannot exist outside of such an embodiment, but any particular embodiment is contingent and dispensable. Desire itself therefore has no intrinsic endpoint, but fantasy serves, at least temporarily, to channel desire toward particular ends.

Sinthome then moves to what I would describe (probably oversimplistically) as a discussion of the ways in which social context participates in the production of particular fantasies – channeling desire in specific ways, and situating desire for specific objects into an overarching intersubjective framework of social significance. This invocation of the social, however, is followed by a set of what seem to be more trans-social claims – including particularly claims (which, to my ears, have a sort of social contract resonance) relating to the individual’s inevitable sacrifice of happiness for the sake of entering into society: so, the individual must enter into relations with a specific and particular social, which could presumably be analysed for its own idiosyncratic demands on individual behaviour, but in the background remains the notion of an experience or an awareness of something like presocialised happiness. As Sinthome expresses it:

Freud makes exactly this point in Civilization and its Discontents, when he speaks of the unhappiness we experience as a result of being members of society. If the individual continuously bites at the bit of the social, then this is because the individual sees the social as having stolen his happiness despite the fact that he couldn’t exist at all without this collective.

However, despite the fact that I sacrifice some of my happiness in entering into society, bits of this enjoyment continue to persist in fractured forms. In short, there is a remainder that the symbolic cannot quite integrate, that always escapes, that functions as excessive waste. It is, in fact, this remainder that ties me to the social in the first place since my enjoyment of this remainder functions as the motive of my identification

Sinthome then relates the persistence of this “remainder” to the possibility for critique, arguing, if I’m understanding correctly, that the remainder retains the residue of a presymbolic realm from which the symbolic realm is necessarily constructed. The symbolic realm – including fantasy as desire expressed in symbolic form – therefore necessarily drags along in its wake its own “outside”. Sinthome then points toward the possibility of “traversing the fantasy” – a concept developed much more fully in Sinthome’s other posts, and which I will therefore leave aside here, other than to note that, as I understand it, the intention is to point to the possibility for a subject to break the process of identification with particular objects in a transformative way.

To shift from my, undoubtedly somewhat crude, attempt to capture what Sinthome is saying, into some of my reactions to this framework: I’m struck first, of course, by the resonance with other forms of thought. Lacan would have been aware, of course, that this conceptualisation of the relationship between desire and fantasy is essentially identical to Marx’s discussion of value: value being a pattern of social practice that has no existence separate from its physical manifestation in goods in their movement through the process of production and exchange – that can promiscuously attach itself to different specific objects, but that must necessarily, for Marx, retain some sort of physical frame, etc.

The description of the relationship between desire and fantasy is too similar not to have been intended. The question is, what do we make of that similarity? Is the claim that capitalism somehow manifests a deep psychological pattern more completely than other societies, but that the psychological pattern would have existed in any event? Is the claim that this psychological dynamic is structured at a deep level by capitalism, such that it might not have characterised human existence in other societies? Is the claim that capitalism has made certain conceptual metaphors available to us, and so we’re now experimenting with applying some of those concepts metaphorically to psychological processes – and may have some empirical or interpretive hits and misses in the process? Is the claim that Marx stumbled across some metaphors that are fairly accurate as descriptions of human psychology, but foolishly misapplied them to an analysis of a social system? etc. None of these questions, I should note, necessarily leads into a critique – I’m not worried about whether traditions are “original” – I’m just genuinely curious, when any body of thought borrows so much from or so closely parallels another, how the relationship between the two is understood.

I am more nervous, and in a more critical direction, about the notion of a presymbolic residue – particularly as I get the sense that this residue may be being invoked as a possible locus of critique. I am very conscious that I am likely to be misunderstanding the strategic role of this concept (although I have some passing exposure to this tradition, my background is very primitive, so I’m essentially relying on first impressions…), but I’m not really sure why else you would “need” to posit the existence of such a “remainder” within the framework of a theoretical system that does aim at some level of political critique. If you restrict the tradition to therapeutic contexts, then there might be other strategic motives, but I take part of the point of this series of posts to be reflection on the relationship between this framework and the possibility for transformative political practice. Sinthome, I should also note, uses the subsequent posts in this series precisely to drive toward a clearer distinction between the use of this framework in therapeutic contexts, and its appropriation for political practice, so my questions may not be relevant for Sinthome’s own thought. I suppose my question (and my nervousness) relates more to the appropriation of these concepts as a framework for understanding political practice, and I’m working off of Sinthome’s posts as a way of easing myself into my unease with this tradition – with the caveat that my misgivings might fade once I understand more…

Playing to Lose

From an article in The Age on computer games with social agendas:

Among other socially conscious games with an agricultural theme is Third World Farmer, a 2005 student project from Denmark’s IT University of Copenhagen ( The game challenges players to stay alive through drought, disease, civil war, falling market prices and exposure to toxic waste from a chemical company that wants to lease their land.

“As the average computer game player is getting older, there’s going to be a larger market for games dealing with serious issues,” says graduate student Frederik Hermund, who helped design the game.

In the game there is no way to “win”, something Mr Hermund says has left many players frustrated, adding that the new version will not be “so bleak”. “We’re trying to implement ways to solve some of the problems by building roads and communications. I hope we’ll get less hate mail.”

Something about this scenario is strangely reminiscent of a discussion from the postgrad planning theory course this term. It’s a bit difficult to summarise the context, which related to the use of worst-case scenarios in particular kinds of activist literature. The discussion initially related to the… provenance of the scenarios – to whether particular kinds of claims could be grounded empirically. Talk rapidly shifted, however, from the accuracy of the scenarios, to what kinds of writing would mobilise greater numbers of people to political action.

I’m apparently an outlier on this one, because I tend to think that mainstream political mobilisation is more likely to result from a sense that some solution is viable. (I always think back to an undergraduate lecturer of mine who, asked whether peasants had revolted in a particular period because they were being deprived of food, said something like, “In general, historically, when you deprive people of food, they don’t revolt: they starve.” He then proceeded to draw attention to the constructive, as well as the reactive, provocations that contributed to driving dissatisfaction to be mobilised as political action.) Several of my students disagreed quite strongly, arguing that larger mobilisations would result from drilling in a sense that we have reached a point of no return: that we are facing issues to which no solution could ever be found.

I don’t have a strong universalist claim on the issue – my default position is to assume that political mobilisations have diverse causes. I would tend to think, though, that when problems appear (or, in the case we were discussing, are made to appear) overwhelming and fundamentally insoluable, a level of denial and demobilisation is somewhat likely to set in – and, as with the game manufacturers above, perhaps even a level of shoot-the-messenger anger against the harbingers of depressing news… To approach the same problem from a different direction, I tend also to think (with some qualifications) that Marx might have been onto something in suggesting:

Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.

Reflections on Friedman

I’ve just been reading the reactions to Milton Friedman’s death yesterday, at the age of 94. Although I would never consider myself an expert on his work, I have taught Friedman’s works often, and have been intending to write on him more extensively, in the context of reflecting more generally on liberal and libertarian philosophy. For the moment, I’ll just re-post the observation from Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics blog:

He was truly a revolutionary thinker. People do not realize how revolutionary because so many of his ideas that were thought to be crazy when he suggested them eventually came to be seen as obvious…

Levitt and Dubner capture one of the elements that has always fascinated me about Friedman’s work: the ways in which the reception of ideas depends so much on how the historical moment is prepared to receive them – and, at the same time, the ways in which a clear and cogent articulation of ideas can fundamentally shape the trajectory of historical trends, given the right historical opportunity. Friedman poses a particularly clear example of the complex interactions between a thinker and their time – an issue to which I can perhaps return in more depth at a later point.