Rough Theory

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Monthly Archives: January 2007

The Slow Hegelians

Okay – time to disabuse Sinthome of the notion that I have a clue when it comes to reading Hegel… 😉

I had promised some time ago to write something on the Introduction to Phenomenology. Many of the points I’ll make here have come up in other ways by now, as the reading group discussion has moved along while my writing has tarried… I write them here to consolidate the points I’ve been making in scattered form – and in the (almost certainly vain) hope that, eventually, I’ll write posts like this on other sections of the text. I should note at the outset that it has grown quite late here while I have been working on this text and, while I’ve commented on the Introduction as a whole, I’ve decided that editing this is beyond the limits of my wakefulness at the moment… ;-P Apologies in advance for the range of detail (and, no doubt, big picture) errors that weren’t caught as a result.

Hegel begins with an argument whose elegance lies, in no small part, in its obviousness – shocking us with the retroactive impact of asking how this point could ever have been overlooked. Hegel first notes the infinite regress involved in trying to ground philosophical investigation on the question of how thinking subjects can know they have accurately grasped objective reality:

It is natural to suppose that, before philosophy enters upon its subject proper – namely, the actual knowledge of what truly is – it is necessary to come first to an understanding concerning knowledge, which is looked upon as the instrument by which to take possession of the Absolute, or the means through which to get a sight of it. The apprehension seems legitimate, on the one hand that there may be many kinds of knowledge, among which one might be better adapted than another for the attainment of our purpose – and thus a wrong choice is possible; on the other hand again that, since knowing is a faculty of a definite kind and with a determinate range, without the more precise determination of its nature and limits we might take hold on clouds of error instead of the heaven of truth.

This apprehensiveness is sure to pass even into the conviction that the whole enterprise which sets out to secure for consciousness by means of knowledge what exists per se, is in its very nature absurd; and that between knowledge and the Absolute there lies a boundary which completely cuts off the one from the other. For if knowledge is the instrument by which to get possession of absolute Reality, the suggestion immediately occurs that the application of an instrument to anything does not leave it as it is for itself, but rather entails in the process, and has in view, a moulding and alteration of it. Or, again, if knowledge is not an instrument which we actively employ, but a kind of passive medium through which the light of truth reaches us, then here, too, we do not receive it as it is in itself, but as it is through and in this medium. In either case we employ a means which immediately brings about the very opposite of its own end; or, rather, the absurdity lies in making use of any means at all. (73)

He then argues that, once we ask ourselves how to bridge the subject-object divide, we have already smuggled in a set of unstated assumptions about the nature of knowledge and its object that themselves are open to contention:

…the fear of falling into error… presupposes something, indeed a great deal, as truth, and supports its scruples and consequences on what should itself be examined beforehand to see whether it is truth. It starts with ideas of knowledge as an instrument, and as a medium; and presupposes a distinction of ourselves from this knowledge. More especially it takes for granted that the Absolute stands on one side and that knowledge on the other side, by itself and cut off from the Absolute, is still something real; in other words, that knowledge, which, by being outside the Absolute, is certainly also outside truth, is nevertheless true – a position which, while calling itself fear of error, makes itself known rather as fear of the truth. (74)

What an extraordinary puzzle! Why, indeed, should we assume that subjects and objects are separated, and that knowledge must therefore be (explicitly or tacitly) visualised as an instrument or a medium bridging a divide? Why start our reflections so late in the piece, with so much already presupposed and thereby left doxic? Is this the only way in which such a thing could be conceptualised? What difference might it make, to conceptualise the issue in a fundamentally different way?

Hegel next seems to run dismissively through various attempts to overcome the irritation caused by the initial assumption of subject-object dualism, gesturing quickly to the ways in which they reproduce – or simply mystify – the same underlying problem (75-76). Interestingly, though, he uses this series of rapidfire dismissals to develop a contrast between these common styles of criticism, and the form of argument required for scientific thought. In Hegel’s account, scientific thought cannot engage in this kind of dismissive critique, which simply rejects the validity of a competing form of thought. Hegel associates this form of dismissive critique with approaches that assert subject-object dualism – and argues that the movement beyond such a dualism requires the development of a new concept of critique. In Hegel’s words:

For science cannot simply reject a form of knowledge which is not true, and treat this as a common view of things, and then assure us that itself is an entirely different kind of knowledge, and holds the other to be of no account at all; nor can it appeal to the fact that in this other there are presages of a better. By giving that assurance it would declare its force and value to lie in its base existence; but the untrue knowledge appeals likewise to the fact that it is and assures us that to it science is nothing. One barren assurance, however, is of just as much value as another. Still less can science appeal to the presages of a better, which are to be found present in untrue knowledge and are there pointing the way toward science; for it would, on the one hand, be appealing again in the same way to a merely existence fact; and, on the other, it would be appealing to itself, to the way in which it exists in untrue knowledge, i.e., to a bad form of its own existence, to its appearance, rather than to its real and true nature. (76)

The requirement to develop this new form of critique is what drives Hegel toward phenomenology (76).

Hegel flags that his phenomenological account will not seem to be science at all, but instead will resemble a pathway followed by natural consciousness in the movement toward true knowledge (77-78). Hegel makes an interesting distinction here: he notes that he is not reaching for something approximating a conventional notion of a subject progressing through radical doubt and out the other side to certainty; nor, he argues, is he seeking some kind of commitment from the subject’s personal consciousness to examine everything for itself, rather than accepting any claims on authority (78). Hegel’s text suggests here that both of these forms of scepticism are insufficient, because both share an assumption that knowledge could be established at the level of an atomised, individual thinking subject. Hegel argues that science, by contrast, properly directs its scepticism toward an intersubjective universe of knowledge. Again in Hegel’s words:

Scepticism, directed to the whole compass of phenomenal consciousness, on the contrary, makes mind for the first time qualified to test what truth is; since it brings about a despair regarding what are called natural views, thoughts, and opinions, which it is matter of indifference to call personal or belonging to others, and with which the consciousness, that proceeds straight away to criticize and test, is still filled and hampered, thus being, as a matter of fact, incapable of what it wants to undertake. (78 – italics mine)

Thus directed to an intersubjective universe of collectively shared forms of perception and thought, critique takes on a new form: examining the relationships of forms of thought to one another – in Hegel’s terms:

The completeness of the forms of unreal consciousness will be brought about precisely through the necessity of the advance and the necessity of their connection with one another. (79)

Hegel suggests that the styles of dismissive critique he outlined above can be seen, in light of this kind of analysis, as one-sided – as manifestations of the negative dimension of a process that, in its entirety, is not solely negative. Grasping the process as a whole provides a means of understanding the plausibility of specific forms of thought, while also retaining the ability to criticise those forms of thought as incomplete (79). Here Hegel introduces the concept of a determinate negation, as the means through which science, having reached despair by directing scepticism against the intersubjective universe of knowledge, then finds a path beyond scepticism:

For this view is scepticism, which always sees in the result only pure nothingness, and abstracts from the fact that this nothing is determinate, is the nothing of that out of which it comes as a result. Nothing, however, is only, in fact, the true result, when taken as the nothing of what it comes from; it is thus itself a determinate nothing, and has a content. The scepticism which ends with the abstraction “nothing” or “emptiness” can advance from this not a step farther, but must wait and see whether there is possibly anything new offered, and what that is – in order to cast it into the same abysmal void. When once, on the other hand, the result is apprehended, as it truly is, as determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen; and in negation the transition is made by which the progress through the complete succession of forms comes about of itself. (79-80)

Perfectly clear, no? ;-P

Hegel next moves to an intriguing passage that poses the question – a pivotal one, in terms of interpretations of Hegel’s system – of when this process of moving in and through negation would come to a culmination. Hegel’s text here reads ambiguously to me. Initially, the text seems to suggest that such a culmination exists, by proposing:

The terminus is at that point where knowledge is no longer compelled to go beyond itself, where it finds its own self, and the notion corresponds to the object and the object to the notion. The progress towards this goal consequently is without a halt, and at no earlier stage is satisfaction to be found. (80)

The text then goes on to distinguish non-conscious life from consciousness, a distinction that hinges on the intrinsic restlessness of consciousness – the ways in which consciousness intrinsically transcends what is limited, and drives itself beyond various attempts to settle into a static position (80). It is unclear, at this point in the text, whether this restlessness is meant only to drive consciousness to the “terminus”, at which point it can stop. Since the concept of a determinate negation suggests that the “terminus” may itself involve an appreciation of dynamic relationships, this question may not be the right one to ask. In any event, for present purposes, I’ll bracket this issue for future consideration.

Throughout these sections on determinate negation, Hegel has stressed the conflict between the form and the content of his argument – pointing out that his text operates “by way of preliminary” (79) or “provisionally and in general” (81). He next moves on to more explicit reflections on methodology – first addressing the objection that, in fact, L Magee did raise quite strenuously when we met to discuss the early sections of this text: that philosophical exposition must necessarily require the very sort of a priori standards that this exposition claims it has set out to criticise. Hegel first notes this objection – and then argues, as he did at the beginning to the Introduction, that this stance ultimately drives back into radical scepticism:

This exposition, viewed as a process of relating science to phenomenal knowledge, and as an inquiry and critical examination into the reality of knowing, does not seem able to be effected without some presupposition which is laid down as an ultimate criterion. For an examination consists in applying an accepted standard, and, on the final agreement or disagreement therewith of what is tested, deciding whether the latter is right or wrong; and the standard in general, and so science, were this the criterion, is thereby accepted as the essence or inherently real. But here, where science first appears on the scene, neither science nor any sort of standard has justified itself as the essence or ultimate reality; and without this no examination seems able to be instituted.

He then tacitly suggests that the sceptical dilemma that many take to be inherent in the nature of philosophical argument, itself appears to presuppose consciousness as the act of an atomised, individual thinking subject. Against this tacit position, he points to consciousness as a phenomenon that always already presents itself as a dynamic movement through a series of relationships. In Hegel’s words:

Consciousness, we find, distinguishes from itself something, to which at the same time it relates itself; or, to use the current expression, there is something for consciousness; and the determinate form of this process of relating, or of there being something for a consciousness, is knowledge. (82)

Hegel then offers just a glimpse of how he will use this relational concept of consciousness to make sense of the competing form of perception expressed in the notion of a subject-object dualism. He suggests:

But from this being for another we distinguish being in itself or per se; what is related to knowledge is likewise distinguished from it, and posited as something outside this relation; the aspect of being per se or in itself is called Truth. (82)

So, in a very preliminary way, Hegel has suggested that forms of perception and thought can arise that mistake aspects or dimensions of a dynamic procession of relationships for the entirety. These forms of perception and thought can be criticised with reference to the more comprehensive perspective grounded in awareness of the overarching relationships – a form of critique that, nevertheless, does not abstractly reject the forms of thought being criticised, but simply demonstrates them to be plausible, but incomplete, attempts at truth.

Hegel then moves through a beautiful, fluid, rapidfire sketch of one example of how the same moment within a dynamic procession of relationships might plausibly be characterised in different ways, depending on the perspective from which those experiences are viewed, which plausibly brings into view different dimensions of the overarching dynamic context (83-85). This kind of analysis – involving rapid shifts of perspective that require thorough and precise attention from the reader at all moments, in order to track which viewpoint Hegel has identified as the current perspective from which the relevant relationship within the dynamic process is being viewed – recurs throughout Phenomenology, and is a major factor in making the text so difficult to read, in spite of the fact that Hegel is rigorously specific in flagging the perspective whose viewpoint he is expressing at any given point in the text. At this point in the presentation, Hegel uses his analysis to suggest that subjects and objects are moments in an overarching dynamic relationship – ways in which that relationship can be perceived, when viewed from specific perspectives. He then concludes his response to those who suggest that philosophy must take the form of an examination of a priori standards:

Consequently we do not require to bring standards with us, nor to apply our fancies and thoughts in the inquiry; and just by leaving these aside we are enabled to treat and discuss the subject as it actually is in itself and for itself, as it is in its complete reality. (84)

Next follows a wickedly dense series of passages on self-reflexivity and experience that reads to me as delightfully corrosive (85-89). As I read them (and I should note that these passages stretch the limits of my understanding of this text – I find them extraordinarily difficult to parse, so I would greatly appreciate corrective readings here), these passages attempt to provide an alternative to the conventional notion that our experience of the objective world causes consciousness to correct its understanding of that world – to reject falsehoods as new truths are discovered. Hegel here seems to be suggesting that the conventional view behaves as though our current perception of objectivity is always brought into being – caused – by objectivity itself, while at the same time behaving as though all of our old perceptions of objectivity – the ones that we claim to have overcome through experience – are “mere” falsehoods. In a passage that reminds me of Marx’s criticism that the political economists always speak as though “there has been history, but there no longer is any” – or, for that matter, of the “strong programme” in the sociology of scientific knowledge – Hegel argues that the ability to have new experiences, and to interpret those experiences in specific ways, itself already implies a prior transformation of consciousness:

But it usually seems that we learn by experience the untruth of our first notion by appealing to some other object which we may happen to find casually and externally; so that, in general, what we have is merely the bare and simple apprehension of what is in and for itself. On the view given above, however, the new object is seen to have come about by a transformation or conversion of consciousness itself. This way of looking at the matter is our doing, what we contribute… (87)

I find this passage quite extraordinary – not least because the position it seems to express remains so controversial in the present. At the same time, however, Hegel’s text here contains echoes of a strong developmental understanding of how such a transformation of consciousness must unfold – as though such transformations have a necessary directionality to them, and build always in a cumulative fashion. He thus continues the passage quoted above:

…by its means the series of experiences through which consciousness passes is lifted into a scientifically-constituted sequence, but this does not exist for the consciousness we contemplate and consider. We have here, however, the same sort of circumstance, again, of which we spoke a short time ago when dealing with the relation of this opposition to scepticism, viz. that the result which at any time comes about in the case of an untrue mode of knowledge cannot possibly collapse into an empty nothing, but must necessarily be taken as the negation of that of which it is a result – a result which contains what truth the preceeding mode of knowledge has in it. In the present instance the position takes this form: since what at first appeared as object is reduced, when it passes into consciousness, to what knowledge takes it to be, and the implicit nature, the real in itself, becomes what this entity per se, is for consciousness; this latter is the new object, whereupon there appears also a new mode or embodiment of consciousness, of which the essence is something other than that of the preceeding mode. It is this circumstance which carries forward the whole succession of the modes or attitudes of consciousness in their own necessity. It is only this necessity, this origination of the new object – which offers itself to consciousness without consciousness itself knowing how it comes by it – that to us, who watch the process, is to be seen going on, so to say, behind its back. Thereby there enters into its process a moment of being per se, or of being for us, which is not expressly presented to that consciousness which is in the grip of experience itself. (87)

What to do with such a passage? There is so much within it – particularly the emphasis on the way in which “discoveries” (scientific, social theoretic, etc.) present themselves as “obvious” and “commonsensical” to those caught up within them – that resonates so strongly with how I would approach such things. But how strongly does Hegel intend his developmental language? How does he understand the concept of “necessity”? These questions are recurrent in the reading group discussion of this text, and I have no settled answer for such questions myself – I have no choice for the moment but to bracket them for later consideration.

Getting late on my end, so I’ll bring this discussion to a close by just quoting Hegel’s concluding passage, which provides an overview vision of Hegel’s critical standpoint – a standpoint grounded in the perspective provided by the awareness of the dynamic relational process in which consciousness is embedded:

In pressing forward to its true form of existence, consciousness will come to a point at which it lays aside its semblance of being hampered with what is foreign to it, with what is only for it and exists as an other; it will reach a position where appearance becomes identified with essence, where, in consequence, its exposition coincides with just this very point, this very stage of the science proper of mind. And, finally, when it grasps this its own essence, it will connote the nature of absolute knowledge itself. (89)

LM has been pressing me on the issue of what such a critical standpoint means, whether this specific kind of standpoint is intrinsic to an immanent approach, and whether I can sever a notion of an immanent critical standpoint from the implied notions of totality and developmental process implied in some parts of Hegel’s text. The issue of what Hegel means will, I think, have to wait close readings of later sections of this text – and the issue of whether anyone can make good on the notion of articulating immanent critical standpoints that do not rely on a totality-eye view will likely have to await my own and others’ later theoretical work. I pose these questions here, though, as important issues to bracket and return to, as we continue moving forward through this text.

Apocalypticism as Mechanical Solidarity

Who knew that there would be such interest in the apocalypse? ;-P

Asking some forbearance for yet another update on how the conversation on apocalypticism continues to percolate across even more blogs, I wanted to post a pointer to Joseph Kugelmass’ thoughtful and provocative reflections, which have been posted to The Valve (as well as to his own site, The Kugelmass Episodes, for those who prefer a cozier venue). Joe’s posts jump off from the earlier cross-blog discussion of how to interpret contemporary apocalypticism, but develop along lines suggested in Joe’s ongoing series of critical reflections on contemporary ethics and aethetics.

Joe’s most recent interventions have been posted in two parts:

“The Poem and the Apocalypse, Part One: Destructive Fantasies” (or, at KE)- which revisits the cross-blog discussion, offers its own analysis of types of apocalyptic fantasy, and draws particular attention to the phenomenon Joe calls “thin slicing” – the instrumental and selective mobilisation of symbolically charged evidence directed to ideological ends, and predicated on the assumption that social connection necessarily requires agreement and sameness; and

“The Poem and the Apocalypse, Part Two: Children of Men and Frank O’Hara’s Personism” (or, at KE) – which moves from an analysis of Cuaron’s Children of Men to an analysis of O’Hara’s Personism, in order to unfold a series of reflections on the potential for a vision of social connection that transcends instrumentalist “thin slicing”.

I’ll apologise to Joe for flattening the content considerably in this synopsis – Joe’s posts, and the subsequent discussion, are worth reading in full to get a proper feel for the points in contention.

Updated 30 January: Yet more apocalypse! High Low & in between has added a fourth installment to the apocalyptic sublimity series of posts on the apocalypticism discussion, with yet another good summary of the cross-blog discussion as well as fresh original observations, while Sinthome has posted the conference presentation inspired by the blog discussion at Larval Subjects.

And now, update-on-the-update, we have our very own carnival… er… sort of: the Unofficial Carnival of the Blogocalypse, assembled by The Constructivist at the group blog Mostly Harmless.

Immanently Yours…

The wealth of material supplied by N Pepperell acts as a sure caution to intrepid guests, not to overstep their mark by way of tongue-in-cheek introductions and open-ended questions – particularly leading into holidays of national fervour… Not only does this lead to an avoidance of patriotic duty – long afternoons, barbeques and cricket under these antipodean skies – it ensures guilt-laden indigestion as well, as the reader attempts to sift through the subtle responses provided. All this, despite the assurances to the contrary from their author, made through various comments of fatigue, vagueness, distractedness and an invariably heavy workload… The embarrassment of riches which followed is all the more generous in consequence.

The intricate nature of the responses have suggested further comment to an already lengthy post would make comprehension difficult – so I’ve created a separate post with the first question and response below. I’ve followed with some additional comments in blue.

L Magee: What motivates the aim to develop an immanent theory over a transcendental one? Why must a critical position show itself to be explained in the same terms as what it criticises? Why not, for instance, posit God, nature or something else as a normative ideal against which to measure a particular historical moment or social situation?

N Pepperell: This is one of the questions that Hegel alludes to early on in Phenomenology: the idea that, if you just start off saying “I’m going to do an immanent theory – unlike all those dogmatists who posit a priori stances”, etc. – you’ve basically just demonstrated that you’re a dogmatist too… ;-P To be consistent, the position of immanence actually has to fall out of the theoretical argument itself – so that, really, you can only know that an immanent position is the best “standpoint”, as the result of a (fairly elaborate) argument, that would try to show that you can only make sense of certain important things if you work from an immanent standpoint.

So a stylistically or presentationally consistent immanent theory wouldn’t declare itself as such, but would just unfold an argument through the categories available within a particular context, gradually unfolding its analysis so that it becomes clear that a concept such as immanence is actually required to make sense of all the categories. Hegel – quite rightly – doesn’t trust his readers to “get” that kind of argument, so he adopts a kind of bifurcated presentational strategy, where some elements are quite consistently immanently voiced, while other elements are full of, effectively, stage whispers and stage directions – hints to the reader about what he intends to do, so the reader won’t lose patience or become confused at the strategic intent of the sections that are more immanently voiced.

So, to address your question more directly: there is no way to make an a priori case that a critical position must account for itself using the same kinds of analytical categories that it uses to make sense of its environment. It’s entirely possible to posit God, physical nature, human nature, or similar as a normative standpoint – and, in fact, when I’m discussing these issues in a context where I can’t unfold a lengthy argument about the value of immanent theory (where, as a matter of practicality, I effectively have to assert immanence and ask my interlocutors to “trust me on this one”… ;-P), I’ll almost always mention that, if people are happy positing a God, or nature, or some other transcendental standpoint, then they won’t have to answer the sorts of questions I think I have to answer. If I have an opportunity to discuss the issue over a longer period of time, I’ll then explain why I think appeals to transcendental standpoints provide particularly poor means of answering certain kinds of questions – but it generally takes longer to make this kind of case, than it does just to set out – dogmatically, as Hegel would say – that certain specific standards of proof and argument begin to apply, once you begin operating within an immanent framework.

What begins to motivate thinking about an immanent theory, in a contemporary social theoretic context, is usually a recognition that the object of analysis – social institutions, normative ideals, collective practices, etc. – has actually changed over time. The point of a non-immanent concept is, generally, that it can be universal or timeless or transcend contexts. When you try to use a non-immanent concept to explain something that changes over time (and people do this all the time, of course) the form of reasoning is necessarily reductive – you are dismissing or deliberately ignoring qualitatively specific elements of your object, in order to assimilate that object into something more generic. This form of reductionist reasoning is quite valid – and quite useful – for many practical purposes, so I would have no blanket criticism that would rule out the use of reductive forms of thought for all purposes.

This kind of reduction, though, tends to be associated with ontological, rather than with simply pragmatic, claims: so, people perceive that the universal or general elements to which an object is reduced are the “essence” of that object, while other elements are less essential. You then get questions about how one can decide what’s essential, and what is mere appearance – and this often leads into a kind of scepticism we’ve discussed in the reading group in relation to Weber: the feeling that, really, there is no standpoint from which one could make a decision on such things, so the choice is essentially arbitrary (or pragmatic). So one of the things Hegel, for example, is trying to do is to make the case that, actually, things aren’t anywhere near as arbitrary as they seem – that it’s not an accident that we experience some choices as arbitrary, but that this experience doesn’t actually mean that things are random. I’m not saying this very clearly – and I know I’ve promised to post on this issue (Sarapen mentioned the other day that, where his blog used to be the thing he did to procrastinate on his work, he has now reached the point where he finds himself procrastinating on his blog – I think I’m at that point, as well… ;-P). But for the moment I want to leave this kind of philosophy-eye view of the problem to one side, since your question was really about critical theory specifically, and why immanence is particularly important in that context.

First, of course, there are critical theoretic approaches that aren’t immanent: that, for example, criticise existing society against a notion of human nature – or, for that matter, against religious ideals. So, in a sense, when I toss around the term “critical theory” in a casual way, I’m using it as an informal shorthand for a particular kind of critical theory: specifically, a theory that operates in a secular framework (which is more or less what “materialism” means, in its original sense), and that also tends to think that at least the historically specific elements of contemporary societies and contemporary forms of subjectivity must be explained in historical and social terms. One core goal of this kind of critical theory is to provide a secular explanation for an object of analysis that changes over time. If the object changes, and yet we try to explain the object with reference to categories that are themselves understood to be timeless or transcendent, then we know from the outset that we’re engaging in a form of reduction – specifically, a form of reduction that will abstract away from whatever changes. The problem is, since we’re talking about critical theory here – theory oriented to exploring what might make change possible – it’s not terribly helpful to engage in a form of analysis that abstracts away from whatever is temporally specific… So, since the object of analysis is perceived as an historical object, and the goal of the analysis is to cast light on further potentials for historical change, there’s a need for the categories of analysis themselves to be historical categories – otherwise, it’s a bit difficult to see how the theory can grasp the things it claims to want to understand…

That said, I don’t actually believe most approaches to critical theory have come terribly close to this ideal. I think that many approaches – including some that set out with a strong commitment to producing a thoroughly historical theory – in practice only apply their historical sensibilities to half the equation: they’re happy to historicise the thing they want to criticise; considerably less happy to historicise the ideals in the name of which they criticise that thing. Tacit notions of nature (including quite complex notions of historically-emergent nature) tend to be the actual grounds for the normative standpoints of most critical theories. In this sense, they fall short of the Hegelian ideal and are arguably not terribly consistent with their own stated argumentative standards. More importantly, though, this one-sidedness (I personally think) tends to lead to a lack of appreciation for the generative role played by our current context as an incubator for progressive ideals and practices – which can both drive theories into a more pessmistic direction (more on this in response to your question below), as well as leading to positions that the current context would need to be smashed, rather than preserved through the fulfillment of the potentials it has generated…

I should also mention that a consistent immanent approach to critical theory can’t just assert as a stance, e.g., that a secular theory is the way to go, or that historical objects must be apprehended historically, or any of the other stage direction sorts of positions I’ve mentioned in passing above: a fully consistent immanent critical theory would have to explain these forms of subjectivity just as it explains its other critical ideals (for these concepts do function as normative ideals, grounding critical judgments of other intellectual – and social – movements). The problem is, of course, that it’s presentationally impossible to keep all of these conceptual balls in the air at one time – you can’t always be offering the meta-analysis of how each term you use has been properly grounded, etc. You’d never actually get around to saying anything… ;-P So my approach has been to use a combination of stage directions, combined with a very open and explicit acknowledgement that, in a particular text or conversation, I’m not actually providing sufficient justification to persuade anyone not already tempted by the framework I’m outlining. Then, depending on the concept, I might be able to point to some other work that has carried out some kind of grounding in a more adequate form, or I might need to say that this is work that remains to be done. There is a necessary caveat emptor warning that needs to accompany presentations of this kind of theory, at this point – unless someone is prepared to believe that Hegel or Marx has adequately carried out an immanent explanation to their satisfaction…

L Magee: The concept of immanence is certainly clarified here – thank you. I’m interested in following up on several implications for an immanent critique in what you’ve described. Firstly, it seems that it would be necessary to follow Hegel in demonstrating immanence – not in terms of the categories, and certainly not in terms of the result, but in how the critique would unfold, from a range of dogmatic “immanently voiced” positions through to its conclusions. The form of this critique is necessarily a difficult one for someone to follow, who is “not already tempted by the framework” – sympathetic perhaps in virtue of the result, the reputation of the thinker, the necessity to master his or her thought, and so on. Contrastingly, the normal form of an argument – take certain principles as a priori and proceed from there – is much easier (perhaps because of our collective early schooling in deductive reasoning, but still…). Of course, it should be more difficult to demonstrate that the “certain principles” are themselves not ahistorical truths but grounded in a particular history, that so are other principles of other arguments, including those of the current argument. However this is a lot of work for anyone to do before even getting to the meat of the argument, and seems to cede ground, as a rhetorical strategy, to a so-called transcendental critique, made on the basis of God, human nature, etc.. So long as your “interlocutors” will “trust [you] on this”, that’s fine – but I wonder in other contexts how an immanent critique could ever convince anyone not, as you say, predisposed beforehand? Indeed I wonder whether this difficulty results in a convenient and pragmatic reduction from immanence precisely to the very sort of positions being critiqued, ensuring a new form of “high-brow” vs “low-brow” version of any successful immanent critique – a cognoscenti who understand and interpret the critique into a set of dogmatic statements for those who can’t or won’t follow it. Granted, this is a less of a problem for the critique itself, and more of a problem for how to interpret and respond to it.

Secondly, I think your comments about “work” are telling in this regard – a critique is in this sense less a point of view taken in relation to a particular object, but an ongoing work into how particular points of view get to be taken with regard to an object at given times. As work, it can build on previous work, refine it, augment it, critique it and so on, according to the historical conditions which permit certain aspects of the work become more (and less) clear. In turn, later work may perform the same set of operations, with the assumption there are always “workers” sympathetic to this form of critique. It is at this juncture that I would see the distinction between the “philosophy eye-view” and “critical theory”; philosophy, at least classically (and also in its modern mode of formal logic), has great trouble reconciling its temporal contingency – why these thoughts, at this time? – with the universals it seeks to deliver. Conversely critical theory has the problem of explaining how the historical itself is anything more than a category dreamt up a at a given moment in history, as likely to likely to disappear once its utility has been exhausted. (Of course this dichotomy leads some to the apparently implausible, if highly praiseworthy, project of historical universals…). The notion of “work” as either the production of final account of some particular problem, or a continued effort towards a critique of a given idea or institution in terms of its historical traces presents, at least to me, a useful one for conceptualising these positions.

Finally, I wonder how an immanent critique might proceed without the sort of underlying metaphor or model of organic growth which Hegel uses. This metaphor is at the heart of the Phenomenology, which explains apparent oppositions as evolving moments in the organism – Spirit – under study. Under other critiques, this metaphor itself is heavily historicised – your talk, for instance, describes “capitalism as a form of social life that perpetuates pressures for economic growth” [my emphasis]. What seems to underly this is the idea that capitalism understands itself as naturalised, as a form of organism destinated to grow (via economic rather than biological means). For Hegel’s critique, the result nicely ties up with eventual maturing of the object; if criticism removes or replaces this metaphor, it has to devise other means for delivering its result – not as the product of organic growth, necessarily, but by some other process. What else, if anything, can be used to explain social and ideological movement and change? How does critique avoid, on the one hand, being entrenched in the back-and-forth movement of dogmatic inquiry, and on the other, repeating the progression towards some sort of holistic teleological meta-critique?

I realise both the initial and subsequent questions are somewhat presumptuous and out-of-order, given the context from which they spring (and the time it takes to provide any meaningful reply…). They are in part an attempt to grapple with how to interpret Hegel in a modern context, and an effort to bring to the fore the difficulties I have with understanding other modern interpretations – including those suggested at in these posts. So, some apologies in advance with the naivety in which these thoughts are voiced – truly, not those of one in any sort of “commanding position”. They of course do not demand or expect, either, the rich kinds of responses brought forth previously…

Veni… Veni…

Adam Roberts at The Valve is having fun with the marginal notes found in a copy of Caesar’s Gallic Wars. A sample:

…it is copiously annotated with the blue-ink marginalia of a previous owner of the book: a strong hand, indicative, I feel, of a forceful individuality. Speaking generally I love reading the annotation of previous readers in the second hand books I buy; any number of insights could be contained in the scribbles. And these marginalia are very nice.

A couple of the comments are nicely fatuous. For example: Caesar begins his account, as every schoolchild knows, with the statement that all Gaul is divided into three parts. This, together with ‘veni, vidi, vici’, is surely the most famous thing Caesar ever said. The Loeb left hand page gives us ‘Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres’. The right hand page gives us ‘Gaul is a whole divided into three parts.’ Above this my annotator has written, in large and forceful letters:

Gaul ÷ 3 parts

Why on earth would he need such an aide memoire? Is he, like, an idiot, that he could read ‘Gaul is a whole divided into three parts’ and ‘Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres’ and then put the book down thinking, ‘right, Gaul. That was an eleven-part division of … um…’

I have to admit I was wondering the other day what sense a future reader might make of some of my marginalia – which are often filled, not with notes on what I’m actually reading (although that occasionally figures, as well) but with things like notes on the ambient conversations occurring around me as I read, or my own free associations about other things I’m writing or plan to write.

God knows what someone would do with the marginalia on Phenomenology, for example, which have occasional marginal comments designed to help me find particular passages quickly, when I expect I’ll want to quote them in writing – I suspect some of these notes would probably look every bit as inane as the “Gaul ÷ 3 parts” annotation mentioned above, as they are actually intended to mark passages that make good sound bites, rather than interpreting a passage difficult to understand. Far more extensive, however, will be notes on fragments of conversations I want to remember (which, given my experiences reading Hegel recently, get pretty racy in places… I’ll wager you that no one else’s notes on Hegel contain the comment: “You make me feel like a natural woman!!!” And I shudder to think what interpretation my hypothetical marginalia voyeur might make of such a comment…), or dot points related to other things I’m writing or planning to write (I love the thought of someone trying to make sense of how these dot points relate to Hegel’s text: they do look like they’re meant to summarise an argument – but it ain’t Hegel’s argument…). The cumulative effect, I suspect, would make me look quite insane. Then again, I shouldn’t worry about this, as I apparently look insane anyway

Lies, Damned Lies, and…

I’m currently waiting to find out whether my research methodology empire will be extended this term, to cover a quantitative research methods course for second-year undergraduates – a teaching stint that would itself be regarded as preparation for assisting with a rethink of our second-year methodology course offerings, which are currently split between one term of “quant” and one term of “qual”. No one likes the split and yet, for various reasons (some programs only want their students to take one or the other course, and some programs are still running their own independent courses, etc.) thinking through whether and how to integrate these courses will be quite complex. While my responsibility for this course is still somewhat hypothetical, the beginning of the term is rapidly approaching, and I’ve begun half-preparing – mainly by soliciting ideas from folks who have taught into the course in the past, or who are interested in teaching into it this coming term.

One of the stories that seems to crop up in relation to past iterations of the course is the difficulty obtaining an interesting dataset on which students can practice the more statistical concepts covered in the course. Past iterations of the course appear generally to have given students some overarching policy problem – drug use in youth culture is a theme that has been mentioned often – and then set them loose on a dataset to test various hypotheses against the data, and to reflect on the policy implications of their results. Apparently, however, we have struggled to obtain relevant Australian data sufficiently robust for whatever exercises the students have been asked to perform. Instead – at least one year – we used a UK dataset, but were still asking students to reflect on Australian policy concerns.

When I heard this, I grimaced a bit, and said, “No – I’d really rather, if the point is to reflect on local problems, we use relevant local datasets. Otherwise it will confuse the students – and convey the wrong message, I think, about the need to look into these problems empirically – we don’t want to give the impression that just any old data will do…”

“Oh, no -” my interlocutor clarified, “the students didn’t know they were using UK data. We went in and edited the dataset – we changed all the names of British counties to the names of Victorian communities. It took forever! So, as far as the students were concerned, they were working with Australian data. They never knew.”

Now let me get this straight: We give students a term-long assessment task, oriented to get them to test their assumptions about an Australian policy issue (I’m not clear whether this was on the drug use topic, or on something else) – but we cook the data!!! Oh sure, the data are true for somewhere – and the same sorts of skills and reasoning would apply, regardless of the dataset – I do understand the reasoning behind the assessment task. But still… I have these images of students coming out of this course, getting into debates with friends and family years from now, and going, “Well, you know, I actually researched this issue at uni, and apparently the trend is…” What will the students do, when they run into conflicting empirical data at some later point? How will they make sense of it all?

Why not just tell students you’re using UK data? Or making the data up? Surely we don’t think our students are so fragile that this would cause them to disinvest completely from the task?

On the Move

The Great Office Relocation is underway (somewhat delayed after a last-minute stay of execution was granted late last week, when the incoming More Important Person who is taking over my old office decided to delay their arrival). Although I’ve griped about the disruption the move will cause, I actually like the new office better than the old: my old office was in a highly trafficked portion of the building, near the entrance and across from the reception area, which meant that people tended to congregate nearby. This both constrained what I could do with the office, since random passersby could (and did) peer inside if my door was open, and also led to frequent interruptions, as people hanging out in the area anyway would often decide to drop in for a chat, whether or not they had some pressing issue. The new office, although slightly smaller, is also much more remote – buried at the rear of a small hallway, which is itself buried in the middle of the building. I realise that this location no doubt continues my gradual progression (devolution?) toward a morlockish state, but what can I say: I find isolation, darkness and obscurity strangely soothing… ;-P

For reasons too ridiculous to explain, I’m having to swap a number of things between the two offices, rather than just move my things from one office to the other. The unequal size of the two spaces, combined with the fact that I can’t leave large objects in the hallway to get in everyone else’s way, has made the process something like a human-scale, 3-D version of one of those sliding tile games, where you have only one blank space spare, and everything has to rotate through it… This makes the move slightly more ornate than I would have expected. I have, however, triumphed over the shelving shortage that was threatening to make things even more difficult (I was told “the university has run out of bookshelves” – imagine!). I’ve managed to resolve this problem by pilfering some shelves that had been torn out of someone else’s office and left cluttering one of the meeting rooms (I’ve sworn to take to my grave the name of the colleague who helped me engage in this little midnight raid – although I do deeply appreciate the help), and so my new office is much better… endowed than my old – which means I can bring in more of my books from home (and no doubt provoke even more questions from colleagues about why I have so many books…).

At the very least, the move provides a handy excuse for why I’m feeling too unsettled to do any serious writing… ;-P In case anyone would like to do some serious reading, however, I thought I could at least direct your attention to some places that will no doubt have more interesting content for the next several days.

First, I’ve been meaning for a few days to call attention to Chicago-Beijing, where ZaPaper has been reflecting on how the research process never divides neatly at the seams:

I have to admit that research is like a fractal coastline. You zoom in on one small bit and it opens up into nearly infinite length and complexity. You zoom in again, and you find the same thing happening. In the end one has to accept the hated “logic” of generalization and case study, where your readers have to accept that the case study you present is truly representative. The ideal would be completeness–discuss every piece you have read, and then show how your conclusions have grown organically out of it–but in reality time is finite and what people want is just a good meaty case study… It’s a flaw in my disposition that my training has only exacerbated, the insistence on perfection… One ends up investigating everything and writing nothing.

No, better to just at some point get started writing things up.

Meanwhile, Scott Eric Kaufman at Acephalous worries about the ways in which the self-critical attitude required for editing, can spill over into a vast Zone of Irritation that gradually overshadows our ability to enjoy anything else:

I’m annoyed. I’m editing, re-editing and re-re-editing this week, so I have every reason to be…

I have every reason to be annoyed with myself… But that’s not why I’m annoyed right now. No, right now I’m annoyed by the way in which my annoyance radiates, how it establishes a Zone of Irritation from which nothing can escape. Beards, they can not escape it. Lettuce, it wilts. Other people’s work? You must be kidding me. Take this claim, from an otherwise impressive book:

Many domestic novels open at physical thresholds—such as windows or doorways — to problematize the the relation between interiors and exteriors. (43)

How many? The author discusses three, but looking through my shelf of roughly contemporary novels, I can find no others. Not a one. The nature of the claim-structure is backwards here: I believe X, and “many” cherry-picked novels begin by thematizing it. This is the academic variation of the classic Sportscenter statistic: “On the second and third Wednesdays in March, Bobby Knight-coached teams have only lost to unranked opponents twice in the five years he’s coached at Texas Tech.” Only it’s worse. The Sportscenter infographic remains faithful to its obscenely specific raison d’être, whereas the academic cousin hides its Wednesdays-in-Marchness behind a facade of general truth.

The “many” employed in this passage obscures the fact that many, many more domestic novels don’t open at physical thresholds. It also conceals the reason why many domestic novels would do so: they’re domestic. We should expect thresholds and windows to appear frequently for the same reason we expect spaceships to make regular appearances in space operas. Why even make the claim? Why not focus on how often tables or children appear instead?

Notice, too, the implication that the physical location where a novel begins is significant. Should the critic not establish that where a novel opens is more important than, say, where it closes? How could anyone even write this sentence? Isn’t the dishonesty of the claim evident to anyone involved in any stage of the writing process? What about all those people thanked on the acknowledgments page, did not a single one of them notice these grievous overstatements? Why not? I want to know. I need to know.

This is what life is like inside the Zone of Irritation. Everything is judged by the same unforgiving standards we apply to ourselves, and no one looks — or feels, for that matter — the better for it.

Euthyphro Goes to Frankfurt: A Reading Group Q&A

L Magee:

As mentioned earlier, the last tattered shreds of the Reading Group met in its new habitual abode. Gone are the sunny and airy vistas, the stainless steel surfaces, the brusque and athletic efficiency of service common to our former culinary haunts; replaced instead by various forms of infernal howling and dark lustful depravity. N Pepperell, it has to be said, led the way from easy-going but undoubtedly false Consciousness to our current position, wallowing in the deep recesses of self-reflexive Hegelian turpitude, in the dank bowels of our revered institution. But I – and I think back upon it with some regret – was an equally willing accomplice…

Turning to matters of barely greater relevance, N Pepperell and I, in mutual shock and fatigue with our respective workloads, quickly gave up any meaningful discussion of such trivialities as the actual text of Hegel – though, to be sure, our respective texts were for one brief moment brought out on the table, perhaps in the vain hope that they would be collected with our plates – and instead sought solace in a broad discussion of a number of concepts which have circled around our discussions, and indeed this blog, without ever quite becoming clear to me. Accordingly I placed myself in the position of the (barely feigned) naive student, and proceeded to interrogate the master…

One of N Pepperell’s ambitious – I won’t say “insane” – preoccupations seems to me to be the attempt to develop a historical, self-reflexive and immanent critical theory, drawing on Marx, Weber and Adorno, among others. In the nicest possible terms, I asked N Pepperell to clarify what exactly this might mean… What followed was a discussion which certainly brought me to moments of clarity at the time – but in the intervening passage of a day, has somewhat receded into the conceptual fog which usually surround such concepts for me. In an attempt to regain what has been lost, I will place a number of questions which I raised below the fold, to which N Pepperell may respond with the usual insight and perspicacity… If the following appears to be a crude form of interview, all the more audacious for being located on the interviewee’s own blog, I apologise in advance – this seemed the most useful way to capture the flavour of the conversation (without, hopefully, all of my customary circumlocutions).

N Pepperell:

I find myself fretting over the change that our new venue seems to have wrought in L Magee, my steadfast companion in many a past intellectual journey – now inadvertantly embarked with me on what, certainly from LM’s description, appears to have become a journey of a more spiritual sort. I find myself disconcerted by the way in which LM’s thoughts now turn so effortlessly, and dwell with such ease, on images of “dank bowels”… And was LM always so preoccupied with the “athletic efficiency” of the staff at our previous venue? Has LM’s gaze always lingered so longingly on the stainless steel? Have our new quarters only brought such lurking thoughts to the surface? Or instilled them anew?

I am tempted, if that is the right term, to defend my choice of venue – to ask LM what could possibly be more uplifting than to conduct our conversations (as we do each week) before a gigantic mural of the Garden of Eden, the better to inspire us to resist the infernal temptations that surround us. I hesitate, though, in the awareness that such a statement might cause LM to examine the mural more closely, to recognise that its interpretation of the scene contains certain… unconventional elements… Perhaps I should have thought more on this, as a possible causal factor for our more unconventional experiences of late. If, as I often say, subjects are the subjects of their objects, then what subjectivities are nurtured in such a place? Worse still, I have recently been drawn into consulting on elements of the environment itself – slowly transforming our meeting place into an externalised manifestation of my own alienated thoughts… Best leave this point aside, then, and not mention it to LM…

Better, instead, to search for some other form of spiritual renewal. Perhaps LM’s spirit might find itself refreshed by some kind of dialogue in the light and clarity of virtual space?

No sooner had I made such a suggestion, of course, than LM had claimed the position of Socrates: conceptual fog, naive student – believe none of this, dear readers! LM has claimed the commanding position in this discussion – leaving for me nothing but the role of some kind of hapless Euthyphro… Nothing for it, I suppose, but to accept my sad fate… Onward then, to the agora!

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Well, I Obviously Won’t Be Needing This Any More…

Any suggestions for those periods when thoughts refuse to come together, what writing you can force out ends up in the bin, and you find solace only in your awareness that at least no one else will be forced to read any of it? At the moment, I’m feeling like this just about sums it up:

Fred Mandell self protrait 2001

Graduate Study IOU

Scott Eric Kaufman over at Acephalous has posted a primer to graduate studies – I’m thinking of sending it to the two candidates starting with my research group in a few weeks. But I suspect they should be allowed to maintain their illusions for a just a bit longer. To give a sense of the flavour of the piece:

A is for Anxiety. Who are you, Derrida?
B is for the Bore you are, to all but Ma and Pa.
C is for the Coin you drop, on the Copies you deface,
D for the Despair you feel, writing at this pace.

Now You Tell Me…

So the battered and bruised remnant of the Reading Group met today, ostensibly to discuss Hegel but, in practice, to discuss pretty much everything but… Somehow the conversation turned to my “project”, and to notions of “historical universals”, which was a formulation I was experimenting with some months back, in a paper the Reading Group members sneaked in to watch me present (I’ve posted the actual talk, as well as my own overview critique of this paper, previously). The Reading Group members were very polite at the time, of course, huddling in the shadows at the back of the conference room, all smiles and encouragement. It’s taken me until now to get some feedback on what they were really thinking – from L Magee, who admitted today:

You know, when you were first discussing your work, and you were talking about these “historical universals”, I thought, you know – what an insane thing to do!

LM assures me that this is meant in the most complimentary sense, as a testimony to my willingness to toss myself at a challenging problem, rather than to the fundamental ludicrousness of my intellectual project… ;-P I assured LM that this was not the first time someone had called my work insane… ;-P