Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough


Okay, in the last round of the conversation between this blog and Larval Subjects, we discussed (and, I think, agreed?) that the rejection of subject-object dualism carries some very specific logical implications for philosophical argument. As is usually the case, Sinthome expressed my argument far better than I had done:

It seems to me that what N.Pepperell is groping for is the expression “performative contradiction”. That is, in suggesting that there is a conflict between the content of my post and the form of my post, the suggestion seems to be that at the level of content, the ontological claims being advanced say one thing, while the form in which these claims are advanced say quite another. It would be here that all the issues of self-reflexivity emerge, for if my claims about individuation hit the mark, then 1) an onto-epistemological theory of individuation must account for how it itself came to be individuated. To put this point a bit differently, my meditations on these issues perhaps suffer the old joke of a man alone in a room asked by a passing traveller whether anyone is there and responding “no”, thereby missing the obvious fact that he is there. I am “counting myself out” of the very thing I am talking about, and thus suggesting a transcendence that the content of my post forbids. 2) The nature of critique with regard to other epistemologies and ontologies is significantly transformed as one can no longer say that they are simply mistaken– which would simply be another variant of the subject/object divide, i.e., the thesis that the world has been erroneously represented –but must instead tell some sort of story as to how these onto-epistemologies came to be individuated.


If I am understanding N.P. correctly, then s/he is referring to the habit of thought that continues to evaluate things other than itself in terms of the subject/object divide, while nonetheless having purported to reject this representational conception of the world. Thus, for instance, Deleuze argues that we must shift from a theory of knowledge to a theory of learning throughout Difference and Repetition, and must examine things in terms of how they come to be individuated or produced rather than how they are to be truly represented, and then proceeds to denounce Hegel, Kant, Plato, and others as getting it wrong without applying these very principles to their thought.

If we can agree, at least provisionally, on the positions outlined above, now it’s time to move on to the difficult questions…

I’ll say at the outset that, because I’ve generally struggled to achieve a shared recognition of the points above, I don’t believe I’ve ever actually managed to get to a point in a discussion where I move into what I’m about to discuss: it’s only once you acknowledge the logical implications for philosophical argument of rejecting subject-object dualism that the following questions then open up more clearly for analysis. Where I at least had some practice failing to communicate what we’ve been discussing over the past few days, I lack even that kind of thwarted experience for discussing the following issues. This means I will now be introducing ideas that have not been tested in any meaningful way – the chances of my overlooking something quite basic are therefore very high. The best suggestion I can make is that readers focus more on the strategy of the positions I sketch below, than on my nascent argument – the important thing is the questions I’m trying to answer – questions that should not themselves be undermined by the inadequacies of my gestures toward an answer.

Two reactions expressed during our last discussion point the way, I think, to where we must next move.

The first was Sinthome’s (in my experience quite normal) reaction to recoil from the perceived implications of this theoretical approach. Sinthome has discussed this reaction previously, and expressed it particularly eloquently in one of the earliest posts on the blog:

The concept of immanence is ultimately very simple, yet it proves very difficult to accept in its implications. To affirm immanence is to affirm that the world is sufficient unto itself, that we need not refer to anything outside of the world to explain the world such as forms, essences, or God, that the world contains its own principles of genesis. As Laplace responded to Napoleon when asked about the role of God in the new physics, “Je n’ai pas besoin de cette hypothèse”. “I have no need of this hypothesis.” What could be more beautiful and affirmative than this simple quip? To affirm immanence is to affirm the world as it gives itself and to deny any transcendent terms that might shackle the world to what a putrifying and decaying subject believes the world ought to be. Those who affirm immanence affirm the existent and its potentialities.

The immediate corollary of immanence is the consequence that “the whole is not” or that there is no whole. This is an ontological rather than epistemological thesis. Suppose we claim that the whole is. What are the conditions under which the whole would be possible? In order that there be a whole, it would be necessary that there be some point outside the whole through which the whole could be surveyed like an astronaut might survey the planet earth. But such a point of survey would be transcendent to the whole or world. Yet we have already affirmed that the world is immanent. Therefore such a point of transcendence does not exist.

Such is the rejoinder to Descartes’ proof for the existence of God….

Despite the joyous and affirmative nature of the concept of immanence (both as a thesis about the world and about situations) there is nonetheless a horror of immanence that even the greatest champions of immanence experience. If immanence is horrifying, then this is because it undermines our ability to refer to a transcendent standard or order that would tell us how to be, how to think, how to desire, and so on. That is, the affirmation of immanence is also the affirmation that “the Other does not exist” (that there is no transcendent rule or standard), or that “there is no Other of the Other” (that there is no point of view from the outside), or that “there is no metalanguage”….

My question, then, is not simply that of how we might assert immanence, but rather how we might affirm all of the anxiety provoking consequences that follow from our assertion of immanence, or the manner in which we come to be cast adrift in the ocean of immanence, without any ultimate compass. Or yet again, how we can endure affirming difference, divergence, and incompossibility so as to find a little order in the world and no longer look to authority, the father, or God as the guarantee of our being.

Sinthome’s concern is that the collapse of subject-object dualism – the surrender of the ability to anchor our being and our ideals in a timeless objectivity – sets us adrift. How do we understand the possibility of ethics, of morality, of meaning when the world is viewed in such a way? If timeless objectivity doesn’t exist, do we need to invent it, in fantastical form?

Nick then raises the further question of whether and how we might be able to relate this altered concept of validity to more conventional understandings of truth claims.

While I want to keep Nick’s question clearly in view, I won’t attempt to address it below. I can say briefly that I suspect there is a way to position a more conventional notion of truth – of scientific truth, for example – within the sort of theoretical approach we all seem to be attempting to develop, by positioning this conventional notion as a kind of socially plausible Newtonian approximation – as a socially-generated ideal sufficient for a very wide array of practical purposes within our shared social context, but which nevertheless falls down when we try to reflect on specific kinds of problems that don’t often arise in everyday experience. In other words, I suspect it is possible to embed conventional understandings of truth within a more overarching theoretical framework. Since I haven’t walked this talk, though, this statement can at best be taken as a sort of tenuous theoretical promissory note…

Sinthome’s question I can at least attempt to address in a very preliminary and schematic way. I fear that my response will be too mundane and too basic… I should note also that my intention is obviously not to “answer” the question, but to suggest a few lines of enquiry that might make it possible for us to work toward a better framework for thinking about these issues.

My impulse is to say that much of the sensation of vertigo experienced when thinking about immanence derives from the common practice of (as discussed in the last round of this exchange) asserting the non-existence of timeless objectivity, without self-reflexively explaining the historical factors that have made this a plausible conclusion – from, in other words, making rather abstract claims about our embeddedness in “context”, without unfolding a determinate analysis of the particular context in which we happen to find ourselves embedded. It is for this reason, as well as for sheer logical coherence, that I think it is so important not to fall into the kind of performative contradiction that is, unfortunately, rampant when these issues are discussed.

My own approach to thinking about our context has been to try to think very carefully (almost certainly not carefully enough, and I would benefit greatly from the kind of critical scrutiny these sorts of conversations can provide) about the historical distinctiveness of “modernity” – an investigation that has led me to focus on how we understand capitalism as an element of our global social context in the modern period. If anyone has read back through the older entries in this blog, they will have seen me make at least gestural rejections of common ways of understanding capitalism – I tend not to be very happy, for example, with attempts to define capitalism in terms of class domination, in terms of the market or in terms of core and periphery. While these are to some degree empirical matters, the reason I engage in these skirmishes is because I understand them to have philosophical stakes: capitalism is, I suspect, our closest candidate for an unconscious global social relation (unconscious in the sense that it has arisen and, in spite of a great deal of conjunctural planning carried out en route, is still largely sustained via social practices that are not consciously seeking to bring the overarching system into being). I further suspect that the unconscious – the alienated – nature of this social relation may be particularly important in understanding certain aspects of the forms of perception and thought associated with capitalist history, but this point is far too complex for me to cover even gesturally here…

Very, very gesturally, I would suggest that it seems potentially useful – particularly for understanding the historical emergence and spread of particular kinds of political ideals and perceptions of the natural world – to reflect on what is historically distinctive about capitalism. And I do not regard attempts to understand capitalism in terms of class relations, distributional institutions such as the market, or core-periphery relations, as the best ways into what is historically distinct about this global social relation. Perversely, I also tend not to think of capitalism primarily as a form of economy – in the conventional sense where an “economy” is understood as a system for producing and distributing material goods. Capitalism is also a system of production and distribution, but if we restrict our analysis to this dimension of our social lives, my sense is that we risk naturalising some things that could productively be problematised. I don’t want to dig myself too deeply into the trenches here – and, in any event, am probably not ready to do so. But I have found it most productive to try to think of capitalism in terms of a global logic of practice, as a non-linear historical trajectory that is only very, very loosely coupled to the specific array of institutions that reproduce that trajectory at any given moment in time. Like the Lacanian notion of desire, or the Hegelian notion of essence (this is, of course, how I would seek to historicise and embed these concepts – and is also why I asked Sinthome, some weeks back, how Sinthome understands the parallels between Marx’s description of “value” and Lacan’s description of “desire”), my understanding of capitalism is as a social relation – an unconscious human creation, a logic of practice – that never resides separately from a concrete network of institutions and practices, but is capable over time of discarding any particular network of institutions and practices and moving restlessly on to a new concrete configuration, which can nevertheless still meaningfully be characterised as “capitalist” because the underlying historical trajectory continues to be reproduced.

This is of course much too condensed, and also may not be “true”… ;-P Even in this primitive form, though, perhaps certain implications of this definition might be visible? Such an approach provides, I think, a way for us to begin to understand how… non-revolutionary so many revolutionary movements have been: revolutionary practice has generally been targeted at some specific constellation of concrete social institutions (or people…), misrecognising that it is quite possible to destroy any number of concrete institutions while retaining “capitalism”, as long as the underlying logic of practice remains untouched. At the same time, it might provide a way to begin to understand that the potential for change within our social context is actually quite vast – capitalism is compatible with many concrete social arrangements, some much more humane than others…

But I’m becoming too painfully aware of how ridiculous this likely sounds, outlined in this kind of sketchy and ungrounded way here…

To get back to the question of subject-object dualism and relativism: from my perspective of at least trying to think about the implications of a global social relation, many approaches that attempt to embed subjectivity in context, express a vision of context that is too parochial – too local – too concrete. Parochial, local and concrete contexts of course do exist – in attempting to understand capitalism as a global social relation, I am not siding with theoretical approaches that posit the obliteration of the local or the concrete (among other things, if you view the underlying logic of practice as always necessarily inseparable from some concrete institutional expression, it makes no sense to talk about the obliteration of the local – although it can and does make sense to analyse the ways in which local contexts come to be shaped by their dual role, as both locally relevant in specific ways, and as modes of expression of a more global social relation).

But approaches that see context only as a constellation of concrete institutional structures and particular practices, and miss the ways in which these institutional structures and practices might also contribute to replicating a more global logic of practice, often fall prey (as, for example, Rorty does) to fractionalising human communities into mutually incomprehensible social groups with incommensurable values. My response would be that, whatever unique and incommensurable experiences we might have, one of the strange, unintentional historical results of the emergence and perpetuation of capitalism is to provide a (very, very abstract) level of social experience that we all also share. From the point of view of individual experience, this shared level of socialisation is arguably no more or less important than the unique experiences that also shape each of us. However, from a philosophical and historical point of view, the existence of even a very thin slice of shared socialisation might have dramatic implications – among other things, for understanding the historical plausibility of the rise of particular values and ways of perceiving and orienting ourselves toward the social and natural worlds – for grasping the rise, for example, of the scientific project of seeking out what seems “universal” in human or physical nature, or for making sense of the historical emergence of particular kinds of political ideals (without, for example, resorting to the faux historicism of a Habermasian approach, that operates essentially as a claim about the historical realisation of a natural potential) etc. I realise all of this is terribly undercooked – I am just trying here to gesture at what might be the “cash value” of some of the otherwise odd elements of my theoretical approach…

I suspect, as I mentioned above, that we might be able to get from this approach at least to the point where we can defend the claim that we might share a sufficient reservoir of common social experience that we do not need to fear the kind of relativism that would arise if we understood ourselves to be embedded in contexts that have no connection with one another. We can, I suspect, at least get this approach to the point that we could defend the Habermasian-style claim that we are socialised into the ability to understand appeals to particular ideals of truth, goodness and authenticity.

This is not a small thing, I think, but understanding an appeal to a particular ideal, and agreeing with the substance of that appeal, are different things. We might be able to explain the rise of particular kinds of social movements – and perhaps also the receptiveness to the ideals those movements express – via such an approach. The question remains whether we might be able to go beyond this a bit – to point, for example, to any consequences that might arise for movements that deny the potential to realise specific forms of freedom, when those movements are nevertheless socialised into an environment that constantly whispers that such potentials exist. This is one of the problems I’m trying to work on now, in working through Adorno’s quite critical appropriation of Freud. Adorno argues, in effect, that there is a psychological cost to asserting unnecessary domination, in a context where it is no longer plausible to regard a particular form of domination as doxic – a cost that manifests itself in a brittle psychological rigidity and in collective expressions of rage…

But this is far, far too much for this kind of post… I’ve likely succeeded only in making my current stab at this issue look a bit ridiculous… And I may still have left it unclear why I believe – leaving aside all my various specifics about the context in which we reside, all of which may simply be a false start – that an approach that begins with an analysis of a specific context, rather than with claims about context as such, should reduce the sensation of vertigo – if only by perhaps reassuring us that we might well have some common points of reference, even if those reference points cannot be understood as timeless and universal. My position would be that, for most practical purposes, our own immanence does not leave us as unmoored as it seems, when we approach this problem from too abstract a direction…

4 responses to “Vertigo

  1. Joseph Kugelmass December 16, 2006 at 1:55 pm

    NP, this may be as simple as a few sentences of clarification. I’m confused by your position with regard to capitalism here. I understand your position on immanence; as you know, I agree with you that one can maneuver from “within” systems, especially since those systems are never as self-consistent as they would like to appear, or as they are sometimes portrayed by despairing radicals.

    I also agree that capitalist markets have played an important role in the universalization of humanistic concerns (concerns for rights, for the environment, and so on). In fact, I think that Marx and Engels predicted this when they talked about the expansion of capitalism to every corner of the globe, and when they described it as a historical and economic necessity.

    I see that you’re not happy with describing capitalism in terms of the class struggle, or in terms of the “free market” structure, or in terms of the marginalized. The problem is that I don’t know what that leaves over for the capitalist “unconscious,” and I do worry (perhaps without reason) that when you combine this with the notion that capitalism can be reasonably humane, what you get is effectively immanent simply because it’s not very radical.

    I don’t think every part of the current structure should be overthrown, and in general, as a literary critic, I do work very much from “within” a system of capitalistic exchange, without any particular hope of starting or even playing a part in an overt “revolution.” However, I like that Marx and others made problems like class oppression conscious, because in so doing they enabled us to see the world in more compassionate terms, rather than more callously. I would love to read what you consider to be the residual unconscious of capitalism, largely because I find that project so commensurate with the greatest achievements of Marxist economics.

  2. N Pepperell December 16, 2006 at 5:35 pm

    One of the main problems, I would suspect, in understanding what I’m on about, is that I haven’t actually tipped my hand about how I conceptualise the logic of practice I would regard as definitive of capitalism… ;-P I’m not actually trying to be catty by holding this back – I’m just currently very unhappy with the ways I’ve developed to discuss the issue.

    In practice, I find it seems to be incredibly difficult to figure out how to talk about something that can be said to exist, to express itself conjuncturally through a range of concrete social institutions, but cannot be conceptualised as identical to any of those institutions. People want to reach for a more concrete designation – as above, when you both mention that you understand that I am not trying to define capitalism in terms of a free market structure, but then say that you agree with me that capitalist markets played an important role in the universalisation of humanistic concerns… 🙂 I do happen to believe that capitalism has made certain habits of thought more readily available – more historically plausible – that have then come to be articulated in the form of humanist ideals. When I say this, though, I don’t understand the mechanism through which this works to be identical to that posited by the conventional “triumph of the market” narratives – among other reasons, because I don’t define capitalism in terms of markets… 😉

    I need to be careful with terms like “unconscious” – I realise I used the term myself, so you’re right to ask what the hell this could possibly mean, particularly when we’re talking about collective practice, rather than individual psychology. I’m not seriously trying to suggest that there is some kind of “social unconscious” – where would such a thing possibly reside? ;-P I’m actually just searching for an alternative to the term “alienation” (with which I glossed the term “unconscious” above at some point), mainly because the concept of alienation has come to be flattened over time through association with concepts like expropriation.

    I suspect the concept of “alienation” might have originally been used to capture something closer to “unintentional side effects” – “things we produced through social practice, without intending to bring them into being”. Regardless of the historical meaning, I’m just trying to get at how we might have practiced our way into a particular set of historical potentials, without any person or group setting out to achieve this in any conscious way. Once constituted, though, these potentials can become the subjects of conscious reflection – which itself, then, can make us aware of potentials for political practice.

    How “radical” that practice is depends on the intentions of those organising political movements. I think that capitalism does generate a practical awareness of potentials and a practical familiarity with ideals that could be mobilised to point beyond capitalism itself – as well as to humanise capitalism via more reformist strategies.

    It’s impossible, though, to mobilise consciously to overthrow a system, if you don’t know what that system is – if you don’t know what you would need to overcome, in order to abolish that system. And my sense is that, unfortunately, many revolutionary movements have targeted specific concrete social institutions (markets, bourgeoise classes, the technocratic state, etc.), and assumed that the destruction of capitalism as a whole would follow automatically from the destruction of these concrete institutions – while busily engaged in parallel projects of institution building that, from my perspective, can be viewed as perfectly capable efforts to rebuild the underlying logic of practice I take to be constitutive of capitalism… I don’t see this as inevitable – “the system” doesn’t compel this in some lockstep fashion. Misrecognition of the nature of the system, though, makes this kind of unintentional repetition a significantly more probable historical outcome…

    At the same time, I’m not suggesting that political movements are valueless unless they are “revolutionary” in character – I happen to get particularly frustrated by movements claiming revolutionary goals (often using the grandiosity of the goals to motivate their followers to extreme sacrifices and to rationalise acts of extreme barbarity) when these movements could be seen to be unintentionally facilitating, say, one of the periodic transformations of concrete institutions that moves through the capitalist environment… But I think the same basic theoretical concepts could also be used to gain a better sense for the political maneuvering room available for movements that have every intention of preserving a capitalist context – and I think, on pragmatic and moral grounds, it can be very valuable to have an understanding of potentials for immanent reform…

    In terms of “what remains” of capitalism, if you’re not thinking in terms of concrete institutions like markets and classes: what remains is a logic of practice – a non-random historical trajectory that becomes most clearly visible when you look over time at the transformations of concrete social institutions, and notice that something remains constant within – and reproduced through – all this flux… I expect people to be frustrated with this answer – I’m working on being clearer and expressing in a more useful form what I’m talking about. I wouldn’t specifically expect anyone to “buy” this argument, based on what I’ve written so far. My goal in writing about this, when my ideas are at such a primitive stage, is hopefully to prompt some better minds to experiment and explore what might seem most useful from these concepts.

    I can, though, say, that there’s nothing in this approach that undermines our ability to make, e.g., class oppression conscious: when I say that I don’t understand class conflict as definitive of the social relation, I’m not saying that I don’t think class domination exists, nor am I diminishing the moral significance of political mobilisation around this issue. I think there are some very specific reasons that movements contesting this kind of domination arise in the modern period – that ideals of human equality become so potent, for example, in mobilising protest and inspiring political action… One of the purposes of this kind of theoretical approach would be to get some grasp of why these ideals, these movements, arise when they do – and, in the process, hopefully make some small contribution to helping such movements become more effective in achieving their goals…

    This is of course completely inadequate… It’s the best I can do at the moment – and my hope would be that conversation around some of these concepts might help develop better ways of thinking about all of this…

  3. Nick December 17, 2006 at 4:41 pm

    Since this is a speculative post by your own admission, I feel fairly comfortable pushing your own analysis a little further, if just for exploration purposes (and that seems to me what blogs are great for). You raise the issue of approaching our immanence from a specific context as opposed to some abstract, general idea of context, which I think is useful. And you suggest that in doing so we may come to discover “common points of reference” which, while immanent and non-universal, nevertheless offer some grounding for the vertigo of immanence. My own contribution here would wonder whether there is a fruitful connection between this question of common points of reference (capitalist relations, in your current conception) and the traditional knowledge claims brought up in your other post? Perhaps its a relatively simplistic point, but the way in which certain forms of knowledge and rationality are universalized (and perhaps universality should be thought of as a process in need of continual reproduction, rather than as a simple given?) seems to structurally mirror the expansion of capitalist relations and their corresponding framing of what can be thought. You bring up a similar point in your post about the “scientific project”, but (at least as I read it) also suggest that the spread of a dominant scientific form is derived from the spread of capitalist relations. To me, the scientific project here and the capitalist project are two separable, but similar tendencies – both of which perhaps offer useful concrete examples for thinking of how an immanent context can be relatively grounded.

  4. N Pepperell December 17, 2006 at 6:47 pm

    I think they are separable, but this doesn’t sit in tension with the concept that, in some original historical sense, one may have been derived from the other – or, perhaps more accurately, the popular “massification” of one may owe something to the other. Once this massification occurs, however, there’s no particular reason for the two systems to remain intertwined: this would be the whole point, from my point of view, of using a notion like “alienation”, or speaking about our generating potentials unconsciously: once those potentials have been generated, they at least potentially have a life of their own – they can be separated, and can in principle be perpetuated beyond the life of whatever arrangement brought them into being.

    In a sense, this is the story Weber tells about Calvinist theology and capitalism itself: that a set of practices and forms of perception and thought brought a system into being, only to have that system then react back against the environment that facilitated its birth. This is also the story Marx tells about how the ideal of human equality, which he suggests originated in the ways in which labouring activities are rendered equivalent in the practice of capitalist exchange, but then gained the status of a “popular prejudice” – at which point this ideal could then be directed against the inequalities characteristic of capitalist production…

    So I guess my hunch (speculative, but that’s why we’re engaging in this process) would be: that the forms of perception and thought that we associate with scientific practice might or might not have originated separately from capitalism – I’m agnostic on this, and regard it as essentially an empirical question. I am less agnostic on the issue of the historical spread of these forms of perception and thought, as here I think that it is simply easier for people to acquire an everyday, background familiarity with capitalism, than with scientific practice directly – I suspect that the spread of capitalism paved the way for a popularisation of certain dimensions of scientific sensibility (while also, arguably, distorting and flattening that sensibility as well – but this would be a longer discussion). That capitalism might have played such a role, though, doesn’t mean the two forms of practice aren’t potentially separable (although it might suggest that, if we wish to retain a popular aptitude for scientific sensibilities in the wake of any major structural transformation, we might want to think about how to continue to weave the ability to practice those sensibilities into everyday life).

    Something similar applies to particular notions of universality: of course they would need to be reproduced – and, as well, could in principle be separated from one form of reproduction, and reproduced in a new way (or in an altered form, as many would be critical of the vision of universalism that has been transcendent in the modern era)…

    Apologies if this is a bit scattered – I think this is a very important thing to think through, but am a bit tired tonight…

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