Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: January 2007

Hope in This World Is Not Optional

Via Fetch me my axe, an extraordinary discussion over at Taking Steps, in which little light discusses the impact of what can sometimes be the smallest acts of decency:

So the final game went something like this: in the stand of woods out back behind the football field, a little wooden platform had been installed about five feet up a pine tree. Everyone took turns climbing up to the platform, one at a time. The one on the platform would face the tree trunk. Ten students would line up in two lines, under the teacher’s direction, facing each other, underneath, their arms outstretched and interlacing. The student on the platform would fall backwards off the platform, be caught by the collective effort of the rest of the class, and be placed safely on the ground.

I was second-to-last to go. I was terrified. I think they knew that. But I decided to take the plunge and try to put faith–if not in my fellow human beings–in the system enforcing their behavior, since everyone else had gotten out okay. I closed my eyes as I fell, but not fast enough to miss seeing, in my peripheral vision, every one of those students, in unison, take a step backward and allow me to fall, some of them laughing.

Except one. One blur of movement: one girl I didn’t really know arresting her backward step and coming back, one pair of hands hitting my back in a futile effort just before I hit the ground, hard.

It was a small injury–some bruises and the wind knocked out of me–but I had a moment, staring at the sky through the treetops, to learn a lesson. There were two immediately available:

1. Given the chance, people will be bastards.

2. No matter how many people unite in cruelty, someone will always try to do the right thing. Even if it isn’t enough, it still matters.

As that one girl asked if I was okay, I decided that that first lesson was not going to make me a better person, and that the second was the one worth learning. That was one of the days I finally got around to joining the human race. It was one of the moments of kindness that taught me that there was something to hope for in this life, something worth sticking around for. It was an opportunity to decide if I would be identified by what was broken, or what was whole; by hate for those who had hurt me, or love for those who refused; by what other people had done to me, or what I believed people could do for each other.

In the discussion that follows, little light elaborates:

If that act of minimal, at-the-time-apparently-ineffectual decency, along with a couple of other tiny things–a “how are you” a year later from another relative stranger, a card from a concerned English teacher–hadn’t happened, nothing good I do in the world today and forever would have been possible. If it weren’t for a collection of tiny decencies amid all the hurt and anger arriving to show me another way was possible, it is extremely likely that there would be nothing here for you to read, because I would not have gotten to high school alive, and the only wild card would have been whether or not I’d done someone else harm in the going. I don’t have illusions about this; I am not a saint, and victimhood does not confer innocence.

You do not, at any moment, have any idea whether or not the two hands reaching out to hold someone else up–even when it looks hopeless or pointless–will be yours. You cannot know that a simple matter of eye contact or genuine concern or refusing to participate in pointless meanness–or the similarly tiny opposites of these things–will mean the difference between life and death for someone. I told the girl in this story, years later, how much her action had meant to me, and she didn’t even remember it.

Our daily, infinitesimal cruelties and compassions matter. If not to us, to someone. Everyone who ever benefits from my being in the world owes an unwitting debt to the people who brought me back from the edge, and in turn, and in turn, in an endless fractal of human connections.

There is always someone resisting wrong and trying to do the right thing. Sometimes they are not there for us–there were many times I could have wished for two hands at my back in support, and found none. Sometimes we have to do the impossible and forgive their absence. Sometimes those hands have to be us, even when it isn’t fair; it’s the only way it will get better. It’s a matter of risk, and of trust, often misplaced, but hope in this world is not optional–it is a matter of basic survival.

I was also struck by the post of the commenter Dead Inside, who asks:

We all have a wide range of experiences. How does that shape and form us?

Is our survival based on mere luck? Or is it some built-in predisposition to see hope where another might not ever see anything hopeful, even in a situation such as was described here. I know, for me personally, I wouldn’t have been comforted by that. I’m sure there were times in my life where someone cared and I just didn’t notice or it just wasn’t enough to overcome the waves and waves of despair and worse.

I’ve often found myself wondering at how much I owe, both to blind luck and to the often inexplicable kindness of strangers – reflecting on the pivotal impact of small and mundane acts, and wondering what it is that sometimes makes us receptive to those dimensions of our environment that reflect hope, rather than despair… The original post and subsequent discussion are quite powerful reflections on these issues – I’d suggest reading them as a whole.

Altered States

On my way into the office this morning, I passed a group of American tourists, gathered hopefully around a somewhat decrepit busker, who must have offered to take requests.

“California Dreaming?” one suggested.

The busker looked confused and, in a suspiciously slurred voice, asked, “Izzzat… whazzit… Hotel California, you say?”

“No,” the tourist, persistent, pressed on, “You know – California Dreaming!” Blank look. “You know! ‘All the leaves are brown… And the sky is grey…’? You know!”

The busker, wrinkled brow and pursed lips, visibly strained to recapture a memory of the tune, and finally achieved a breaktrough: “Oh! That one! Yeah! Yeah! I know that one!”

As I continued down the street, I could hear him begin a rousing, if unique, interpretation:

“Oh there’s a yellow rose in Texas, that I’m a going to see!
Nobody else could miss her, not half as much as me!”

Cliff Notes to the Apocalypse

I had been intending to write something pointing to the various follow-ups to the discussion on apocalyptic social movements that originally started, and has continued, as a kind of conversational flow across various blogs. I discovered this morning, though, that High Low & in between has assembled an extraordinary summary of the discussion – complete with links and annotations of the earlier rounds of the discussion, and a new response to k-punk’s latest post on the subject (which itself takes up points from the discussion between this blog and Larval Subjects). Just wanted to place a pointer to High Low & in between’s overview post here, as it can be difficult to follow a discussion like this, in which a cloud of blogs seems to coalesce around slightly different dimensions of a similar interest.

Updated 28 January: Since we seem to have incoming visitors from The Valve, I just wanted to point, as well, to further thoughts on this topic from Larval Subjects, comments on the original discussion at Smokewriting and philosophical conversations, as well as the conversation still simmering at I Cite. Happy to add other links, if people will make me aware of them.

Meanwhile, for those in a less pessimistic mood, Sinthome from Larval Subjects and I have also continued this discussion along a different fork, exploring potential overlaps between Adorno and Lacan, and continuing our long-term conversation on the project of critical theory. Sinthome’s latest contributions can be found here and here, while my latest is here.

Updated 29 January: Just wanted to post a few more links, first to a post above summarising Joseph Kugelmass’ Valve entries, and then direct links to those entries themselves.

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.

The Republic of Betters

I keep meaning to write something on the intensive series of reflections on blogging – now unfolding across several posts – that has been taking place over at The Kugelmass Episodes. While I was able to participate in the very earliest rounds of these reflections, my schedule has intruded recently, and so I wanted to draw attention to the discussion arc in a more comprehensive way here.

Joseph first voiced concern about the self-referentiality and closed character of certain academic blogs, a post which then led me to offer a bit of a “wild sociology” on what I speculated might be intrinsic tensions created by the search for interdisciplinary discussions. To quote a slice from one of my interventions:

The content/community balance is a difficult one – among other things, because the fact that blogs break across established institutional and disciplinary barriers actually necessitates the negotiation of some kind of common frame of reference that makes productive, high-level discussion possible. Of course, some blogs are happy to host free-for-alls of ever-renewed mutual incomprehension… ;-P But if you want to use the potential diversity of a blogging community creatively, generatively, this probably does mean letting a community hash out its own rituals, references, and rules – and these shared norms, plus an active knowledge of the history of the discussion in a particular community, does tend, over time, to raise the barriers to participation for new posters – and raise the risks that established posters will cold shoulder anyone new… Some blogs won’t mind this process of closure – they might be perfectly happy to communicate with the community that has already coalesced around them. The challenge is for those blogs who want to remain open: how can we do this while (1) facilitating the kinds of shared vocabularies that enable productive communication across backgrounds, and (2) dealing with the sheer weight of our own accumulated histories, so that a lack of knowledge of the sorts of discussions that have already taken place doesn’t unduly disadvantage new participants…

But shared vocabulary – of the sort that develops in particular in longish discussions that perists across blogs or within a blogging community over a longish period of time – can be both absolutely essential to a high-level discussion, and also extremely difficult to communicate easily to new readers… But really productive, cumulative discussions – exactly the sorts of discussions I most want to have – come at a price, in terms of what they ask from new readers… And sometimes even old ones: I’ve had a couple of long-term readers mention on back channels that they are having trouble following posts related to cross-blog discussions because these posts place them in the position of seeing, effectively, half the conversation – either because they’re not following links over to the other blog (just because I read specific blogs, doesn’t mean my readers feel compelled to…), or because, when they do follow such links, they find the unfamiliar discursive environment too alien (they’ve gotten used to my style, but don’t want to adjust to someone else’s when they don’t plan on reading regularly)… So my guess would be that, from the standpoint of at least a few folks who are otherwise very interested in what I write, I’m engaging in too many referential conversations that seem exclusionary…

…the medium has its own dynamics, and requires a delicate balance between producing content and producing community – a balance that, I suspect, becomes more and more difficult as blogs become better established… And that, like all balances, spends most of its time out of its ideal equilibrium state… ;-P

Joseph then responded by reiterating his concerns with the risk of closure and referentiality in blogging communities, and suggesting some standards for ensuring the continued openness of blog content:

I think that “continuity” is a fairly hard thing to achieve on the Internet, and I haven’t been particularly happy with where I’ve seen it lead. For example, it often leads to paralyzing rhetorical identities for given bloggers. I like the medium best when it is pithy, provocative, and alive with the enthusiasms of the moment.

Most of the personal interactions to which blogging can lead ought to be carried out via so-called “back channels”: e-mail, instant messaging, and (eventually) phone calls and visits. A blog can be anything its user wants, of course…but as someone who wants to provide and peruse writing with intellectual content, I recognize the obligation to the stranger who arrives via a blogroll, or a forwarded or re-posted link, or via Google.

And the discussion continued from there, spilling over a bit into a post at this blog, in which I expressed my concern – not with Joseph’s post specifically, but with the tendency to set down proscriptive rules for the conduct of academic (or other) blogs.

Here my schedule overwhelmed me, and I couldn’t participate in the discussions that centred around Joseph’s subsequent posts. First, in a lovely post titled The Ivory Webpage, Joseph rejects the common distinction, highlighted in a recent Acephalous discussion, between “academic blogs” and “academics who blog”, and proposes that we move away from the notion of academic blogging altogether. Joseph proposes instead breaking down the professional and ivory tower emphasis suggested in the term “academic” blogging, and moving toward a notion of “intellectual” blogs – a term that I very much like, particularly given that I actually use this blog specifically to explore a great deal of content that I regard as “intellectual”, but that has no clear cut and easy relationship to more normative kinds of academic writing. At the same time, though, I honestly can’t recognise much of what I do here in Joseph’s elaboration of the concept of “intellectual blogging”, which he defines in terms of its “focus on culture and politics”, and which he also seems to suggest should observe a standard of “accessibility”. My thought was: not much of any of that going on around these parts… ;-P Does this mean I have a… nonintellectual blog? ;-P

Joseph moved on to a more lighthearted post on blogging faux pas. This post suffered, I suspect, from having been sandwiched in between posts on blogging that were much more serious in their tone and intent – even recognising that the post was intended to be humorous, I found myself running down Joseph’s list, thinking of all the posts I’d written that had committed precisely these “sins”, and wondering how Joseph finds the time to maintain such high standards… ;-P I should note that one of the posts at this blog did receive positive mention for its “excessiveness” – i.e., for that special kind of obliviousness and unconcern for my readers that regularly leads me to write blog posts that massively exceed the short, pithy length that is supposed to define the medium, while also holding forth, repeatedly, on highly idiosyncratic topics that one wouldn’t specifically expect to hold much interest for regulars (Klein bottles, anyone? poverty of the stimulus?). I take this to be a bit like Joseph’s version of awarding the Kinsey Memorial Golden Gall Wasp prize for dogged persistence in pursuit of interests unfathomable to anyone else… ;-P

Joseph then moved into the always dangerous ground of discussing flame wars and appropriate standards for self-expression in intellectual discussions online.

I take it that Joseph’s intention in writing these each of these posts was, partially, to be self-reflexive – to explore the standards he wishes to adopt as a matter of personal ethics and reflexive practice – and partially to be sociological – to explore the impacts of specific practices on blogging culture.

Nevertheless, as expressed, some of the recommendations sound quite proscriptive: I found myself, as I read, unable to stop myself using the standards set forth in these pieces as one might one of those self-help articles in a grocery checkout-stand magazine: ticking off the posts on this blog against Joseph’s criteria. By the end, I think I’d managed to demonstrate that, by Joseph’s stated standards, I’m a rude, boring, exclusionary, self-referential, in-joke obsessed, non-intellectual blogger… ;-P Please note that I don’t seriously mean this – or, more to the point, I don’t think Joseph seriously meant this: among other things, because he has several times held up this blog as a positive example of what can be achieved through a form of intellectual blogging. Nevertheless, I wondered whether there might be a tension between, on the one hand, what Joseph is seeking to do and, on the other, his specific strategy for framing the issue – a tension which sometimes managed to suggest a judgmental stance that, having interacted with Joseph for some time now across many discussions, I very much doubt he actually intends.

Some commenters, I gather, had similar reactions. Tomemos, for example, suggested:

More broadly, I also would tactfully submit that it is perhaps problematic to suggest how people should generally be populating their blogs—or at least, it’s problematic to suggest how they should not be populating them. After all, very few of us are doing this for our jobs, and many of us are writing as much for ourselves as for an audience. That being the case, I don’t think the relationship between blogger and reader is as straightforward as it is between, say, a commercially-released film and its audience: the blogger is rarely dependent on the reader for support, and the reasons to blog are potentially much more varied than the reasons to make a movie. The epithet “plagiarism” in particular is strong meat; I sometimes get tired of endless YouTube vids too, but the author is hardly passing off other work as his or her own own. I suspect that you have in mind blogs which were once creative but have succumbed to the entropy of endless linkage, but as written it seems categorical.

To be clear, I’m not saying that one should always be mum about what happens on the internet—for instance, since blog/online etiquette is a matter of how we treat each other rather than just a matter of preference, discussing it certainly seems legitimate to me. I’m sure that comes as a great relief to you.

And from the (understandably more emotive) discussion on flame wars and appropriate standards of self-expression in online debates, Namaroopa argued:

Bluntly: I’m saying that I don’t care what you want to read. I don’t want instructions about how to feel for blogging in such a manner. I am not in any way central to this discussion, but a lot of other bloggers I can’t speak for have said similar things before. To me, the topics people are flaming about are not a debate game. Debating other people’s choices subjects them to the possibility of losing.

The original post read that way to me especially because you describe “bad” irritation, the example of doing something better, and the “we” assumed about readers’ positions.

While the always brilliant and inimitable belledame insisted:

at any rate, i gotta say, I do bridle at the suggestion that i am “unhinged” because i use terms like “fuck you, shitbag.” particularly when those phrases are directed at people who in fact have been incredibly, sweetly venomous, without so much as raising their voice. That casual observers don’t see the poison behind the reasonable sounding language is 1) why it’s so bloody effective and 2) why some of us lose our shit every so often, out of sheer frustration. I am sure that it would be more -politically- effective for me to manage to not lose my shit ever, and you know, i’ve been working on it? but at the same time: yeah. I really don’t want to lose any more sleep over the idea that somewhere, someone who hasn’t spoken up and never will, might be offended.

These reactions – which I think relate more to the form, than to the content, of Joseph’s posts – bring me back to the point I raised in my initial intervention into this recent round of discussion about academic blogging:

why are we so tempted to generalise this medium? Does it need to be one thing? Do its mechanics really dictate a strong and pregiven trajectory for the realisation of its potentials? Do we need a consensus on where “we” are going, with our writing in this form?

And yet, of course, we each do want to have specific kinds of discussions – and not other kinds – and we each have an interest in the spread of the forms of discussions we would like to take place. Proscriptive standards are certainly one way to try to achieve this – and, in a purely professionalised blogging space, they might in fact be quite effective. But if we are to take seriously the potential expressed in Joseph’s “Ivory Webpage” post – the very important potential, I think, of bridging professional and nonprofessional spaces into a broader intellectual blogging sphere – the proscriptive route is both difficult to pursue, and arguably in structural tension with the kinds of discussion we’re trying to promote.

Perhaps a more adequate concept, to replace the notion of proscriptive standards in this context, would be something like model practices? Demonstrating, through a standard of writing and discussion on our own blogs, some of the potentials of the medium? I think Joseph engages in such model practices – and, I suspect, this recent round of posts was simply an attempt to refine those practices through more overt and shared reflection. The issue is how to phrase this kind of reflection so that it centres on how we can personally better meet our own ideals, and then invites others to help us refine these ideals and formulate them in better ways, rather than suggesting – as I’m sure Joseph had no intention of doing – that others have fallen short of ideals we have arbitrarily set for them. That, or we can just use my “excessive” approach – and write whatever the hell we want, and assume the readers will sort themselves into the communities that appeal to them… ;-P

One Way

Gungahlin town centre clock, one way sign, and construction barriers.I spent some time today with a group of people working – loosely – on issues relating to heritage, neighbourhood character, and “place making” in a community facing massive demographic change. One of the persons present had been involved in the creation of the ACT Cultural Map, and presented some highlights from that project as grist for discussion. The presentation highlighted a number of features from the Gungahlin town centre design – a greenfield development that, according to the presentation, recruited a local artist to create designs based on stories collected during community consultations. Developers have begun to incorporate these designs into new structures in a variety of ways – from patterns on manhole covers, to distinctive bus shelter designs, to etchings on glass doorways in the town centre – to create a distinctive sense of place while commemorating elements of the area’s history. Much of the presentation centred on visual images of the design elements created through this process.

This kind of commemoration always has a strange, haunted character for me, as it effectively celebrates what has been destroyed by the development process, and tries to build a sense of the distinctiveness of the new community by pointing to what is no longer there – as though the new community is expected to coalesce around what it has displaced. The discussion today centred on images of various design elements – themselves generally quite attractive, and spoken about, initially, just in terms of their visual appeal and distinctiveness. The mood in the room was playful, excited about the possibility of creating similarly unique visual elements in new communities locally, and the discussion revolved around the aesthetic merit of the designs, viewed as communal art.

At one point, however, the content of the artwork suddenly broke through what had, until that point, been essentially a discussion of form, and there was an almost tactile wrenching and reorientation of the mood in the room. The shift took place as the presenter displayed an image of the grates used around the base of new street trees, and the group puzzled over what the grates – which at first glance just looked attractively functional – were meant to represent. The presenter, excited and enthusiatic, explained:

They’re tree roots! Do you see? Because beautiful old trees were cut down – and their roots were everywhere, knotted together – and they’re gone now…

The presenter suddenly paused, thrown out of the presentation by registering – as the rest of us also were – the fundamental strangeness of surrounding these spindly new trees, all planted in their isolated and orderly formation, with artwork representing the mesh of mature root systems from trees that had grown old together, intertwined, and had then been destroyed to make way for the development process. No one voiced or telegraphed any criticism – the mood in the room was poignant, not critical. The presenter paused for some time, not really knowing what to say. Then quietly, almost reverent:

Well… at least we’ve got the memory of them…

I’ve committed to writing a conference paper loosely organised around the issue of how we understand the concept of “community” in a dynamic social context. Tentatively, the paper will discuss the “problem” of post-traditional communities as a foundational issue for classical sociology, make a few gestures at contemporary planning theory discussions on “community”, and then explore the ways in which some of these concepts play out in a couple of case studies from my field research. I may periodically toss up fieldnotes of this sort, as I try to work my way into what, exactly, I plan to write – the draft paper will eventually make its way onto the site. Happy as always to receive feedback on the theoretical or empirical dimensions of the piece.

[Note: image of the Gungahlin town centre clock modified from the one Cfitzart posted to Wikipedia. The original image – and therefore this one – is posted under the terms of a GNU Free Documentation License.]

It’s Later Than You Think…

Via Organizations and Markets: David Seah has a new solution for those who are perpetually running late – a clock that sets itself to be randomly fast:

I got to thinking about why the “set your clock ahead” trick works. I think it presumes the following:

  • You have a terrible sense of time, or are obsessed by last-minute details, either of which cause you to be late.
  • You actually do care being on time, but your friends have started keeping a separate timetable just for you thanks to your legendary unreliability.
  • Enough awful things have happened to you because of lateness that you’ve resorted to pre-emptively tricking yourself by advancing the time on all your watches and clocks.

Now, the problem is that you know that I know you know you’ve already set your clock ahead, so you cleverly take this into account and end up being even later. It’s a vicious circle. What we need is a way to channel fear and anxiety positively, while keeping you from getting too comfortable with your clock.

Enter the Procrastinator’s Clock. It’s guaranteed to be up to 15 minutes fast. However, it also speeds up and slows down in an unpredictable manner so you can’t be sure how fast it really is….

Technically, the clock maintains a “time buffer” of “fastness” measured in milliseconds. This buffer is modified every second by a certain amount, either adding or subtracting a number of milliseconds. Every once in a while, the delta value changes and the rate of change may increase or decrease. The time buffer is added to the actual time before the display calculations are made. The whole point of all this is to keep ya guessing as to what the real time is. The clock should be, on average, about 7 minutes fast, but betting on the law of averages in the short term is a good way to screw yourself. So just assume the clock might be on time, but accept it’s probably fast. Since you don’t know if it’s fast by just a few seconds or several minutes, it’s safer to assume the clock really is telling the right time, which is just what you should be thinking…

Unfortunately, my problem lately has been quite the opposite: rather than sneaking in a bit of extra sleep by hitting the snooze button once too often, I seem to be deciding, when I roll over in the middle of the night and see that my official waking time is a mere two or three hours away, that I might as well get up anyway… Any neat technical solutions for this problem would be much appreciated… ;-P

Sociology and Psychology

Earlier today, I was curious about some aspects of a discussion taking place at I Cite, which itself referred to discussions at K-Punk and Poetix, and which revolves loosely around questions of apocalypticism. Since I’m still easing myself into the thought-space of these blogs, I wasn’t confident that I was understanding the theoretical context for the discussion, and so I drew Sinthome’s attention to the discussion with a few questions, which then led to a very nice post over at Larval Subjects on how we might use a psychoanalytic framework to interpret apocalyptic fantasies manifest in various contexts. I wanted here to pick up a few threads from Sinthome’s post – hoping that it’s not too rude first to draw someone else into a discussion, and only then decide to jump in myself… Perhaps it will minimise my rudeness somewhat, that I intend to write this post at a slight tangent to the original discussion, and to focus, not so much on apocalypticism, as on the importance of psychological theory to the project of critical theory.

In my writings thus far – both on this blog, and in more formal contexts – I have tended to focus heavily on how critical theory can provide an historically immanent and self-reflexive account of the forms of subjectivity it wishes to criticise, as well as the forms of subjectivity expressed in its own critical ideals. I’ve adopted this emphasis because I find that many critical theoretic approaches – including some that would describe themselves as self-reflexive, immanent critiques – seem to struggle to conceptualise critical ideals in a thoroughly historical and immanent way. From my perspective, this failure places such approaches – often quite unintentionally – into a non-reflexive position that, from the standpoint of a more consistent historical theory, can be shown to mystify elements of our social context that are generative of critical ideals. While this criticism may sound somewhat abstract and scholastic, I believe it has some profound implications for critical theory’s ability to connect with social and intellectual movements “on the ground” – a stance that, admittedly, I am far from having grounded adequately in my writings thus far.

As I have focussed on these issues, however, I have remained aware that simply establishing the historicity or the social grounding of critical forms of subjectivity is only part of the task. Such a critical historical analysis can take us to a certain point: it can help us understand the forms of subjectivity – including critical forms of subjectivity – that are historically plausible at specific times and – crucially for political practice – it can help us understand the relationships that connect these forms of subjectivity in specific ways to elements of our social context that we experience and articulate as forms of “objectivity”. From here, though, the path to be followed by critical theory becomes much more complex, because it is from this point that we have to ask ourselves whether we intend just to understand the world, or also to change it.

This question, I should note, is less acute for theoretical approaches that believe that critique speaks with the voice of the future – that critical ideals are simply giving voice to the way in which history would trend in any event. For approaches that reject this position and believe that subjectivity matters – that desired political outcomes will not be achieved through some kind of automatic and “objective” movement of history – some kind of psychological theory is, I suspect, required to complete the project of critical theory. The resultant critical theory would thus deploy both sociological and psychological theory to understand the possible, likely or probable actions of subjects whose actions constitute, and are conditioned by, a particular field of historical potentials.

The most basic kind of psychological theory – a theory whose specifically psychological character is often not recognised as such – is the simple faith that bringing truth to light itself has a transformative power – that if you teach it, or reveal it, they will act. This psychological theory is in some respects quite pervasive – grounded in a (tacit or explicit) belief that wrong acts are the result of error, and the correction of error (or the achievement of self understanding, or similar ideal) will therefore result in correct action. An element of this theory probably underlies most visions of critique, even if most contemporary critical theories would qualify and limit their belief in the power of truth to various degrees.

A number of more explicit psychological theories have been developed to account for those cases in which “truth” has been brought to light – and yet the anticipated transformative effect has not taken place. These theories – of “ideology”, “false conciousness” and the like – are quite varied: at some point, I should go through them more systematically on the blog. For present purposes, since the topic of apocalyptic fantasy started me on this tangent, I will explore only one: Adorno’s proposal for how a critical psychology might complement a critical sociology in making sense of the appeal of social movements that seem oriented specifically to destruction.

Since Sinthome’s post provided the immediate spark for these reflections, I’ll briefly draw attention to some elements of that post to get us underway. Sinthome begins by citing examples of apocalyptic fantasies from a wide range of contexts, and then asks how we should understand this phenomenon. I’ll quote Sinthome’s analysis at some length:

…the psychoanalytic approach suggests that we ask how our desire is imbricated with these particular representations or scenarios and enjoins us to analyze how our thought collectively arrives at these visions to present rather than others. How is it that we are to account for the omnipresence of these scenarios in popular imagination… An omnipresence so great that it even filters down into the most intimate recesses of erotic fantasy as presented in the consulting room? In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud presents an interesting take on how we’re to understand anxiety dreams such as the death of a loved one. There Freud writes that,

Another group of dreams which may be described as typical are those containing the death of some loved relative – for instance, of a parent, of a brother or sister, or of a child. Two classes of such dreams must at once be distinguished: those in which the dreamer is unaffected by grief, so that on awakening he is astonished at his lack of feeling, and those in which the dreamer feels deeply pained by the death and may even weep bitterly in his sleep.

We need not consider dreams of the first of these classes, for they have no claim to be regarded as ‘typical’. If we analyse them, we find that they have some meaning other than their apparent one, and that they are intended to conceal some other wish. Such was the dream of the aunt who saw her sister’s only son lying in his coffin (p. 152). It did not mean that she wished her little nephew dead; as we have seen, it merely concealed a wish to see a particular person of whom she was fond and whom she had not met for a long time – a person whom she had once before met after a similarly long interval beside the coffin of another nephew. This wish, which was the true content of the dream, gave no occasion for grief, and no grief, therefore, was felt in the dream (SE 4, 248).

No doubt this woman experienced some guilt for her desire for this man and therefore preferred to dream her nephew dead as an alibi of seeing him once again, rather than directly facing her desire. Could not a similar phenomenon be at work in apocalyptic scenarios?… In short, Freud’s point is that we should look at horrifying manifest content such as this as enabling the fulfillment of some wish. My thesis here would be that whenever confronted with some horrifying scenario that troubles the analysand’s minds or dreams, the analyst should treat it like a material conditional or “if/then” statement, seeking to determine what repressed wish or desire might become possible for the analysand were the scenario to occur (e.g., being fired would allow the analysand to pursue his true desire, the loss of a limb would allow the analysand to finally escape her father’s desire for her to play violin, etc.).

Here, perhaps, would be the key to apocalyptic fantasies: They represent clothed or disguised utopian longings for a different order of social relations, such that this alternative order would only become possible were all of society to collapse.

It speaks to Sinthome’s gentleness and optimism that the inspiration for this analysis is derived from what Freud labels “atypical” examples of dreams of death. While quoting enough to alert the reader to the existence of another interpretive direction, Sinthome unfolds an interpretation solely from that category of dreams that Freud says “we need not consider”, and elides direct reference to those dreams Freud regarded as more “typical”, namely:

It is otherwise with those dreams in which the death of a beloved relative is imagined, and in which a painful affect is felt. These signify, as their content tells us, the wish that the person in question might die…

Sinthome thus expresses the hope that apocalyptic fantasies manifest a desire for something other than their explicit content – something more than the desire for destruction and death. I raise this point, not to hold up Freud’s text against Sinthome’s appropriation – for we have no obligation for interpretive fidelity to Freud’s work and, in any event, even Freud’s “typical” examples contain permutations that might be amenable to Sinthome’s appropriation (Freud suggests that “typical” dreams can manifest historical content, for example – ephemeral wishes once felt, but long since rejected, etc.) – but because I think it provides a good frame for understanding Adorno’s very different attempt to merge psychoanalytic theory with sociology in the service of critique. If Freud offers two interpretive paths, one of which Sinthome has followed in the hopes that apocalyptic fantasy might signify a nonmanifest content – a longing for transcendence – we can understand Adorno’s work as an attempt to reflect seriously on the second path – on the possibility that certain mass movements might genuinely desire to achieve what their fantasies express: destruction and death.

Adorno’s argument (if I can use this term for someone so committed to avoiding linear, developmental analytical forms) is complex – and not necessarily in ways that are productive for theoretical reflection by those not committed to Adorno’s own framework. For present purposes, I won’t attempt to outline Adorno’s interpretation in any comprehensive way, but will instead comment on just a few elements within a single text: Adorno’s “Sociology and Psychology”, published in the New Left Review in two parts, in Nov-Dec, 1967, and Jan-Feb 1968.

Adorno begins this text with a rejection of the concept of objective historical laws, and suggests – as I have suggested above – that this rejection implies the need to supplement a critical sociological theory with a critical psychology. Much of the article then revolves around two interrelated, aphoristically unfolded, arguments: first, a critique of other attempts to merge sociology and psychology, with particular focus on Talcott Parsons, but with frequent sideswipes at many other theoretical traditions; and second, an often scathing critique of Freud and of various psychoanalytic traditions, in the service of an attempt to appropriate Freudian categories in a more historicised and critical form. Adorno’s arguments are often brilliant and provocative, and I will try to revisit them in appropriate detail in another post. For present purposes, however, I want only to isolate out a couple of points that seem – to me, at least – to have potentially broader relevance for theoretical reflection on the psychological undercurrents of mass movements.

What I find particularly interesting and disturbing in this text is the very simple and, once stated, obvious question that motivates Adorno’s analysis: what might happen, psychologically, to individuals who possess critical sensibilities in circumstances in which those individuals are too frightened or overwhelmed to act?

Adorno unfolds an extraordinarily pessmistic analysis in response to this question, focussing on the strain placed on an ego whose reality testing abilities enable it to discover both the potential for transformation – and thus the non-necessity, the non-doxic character, of sacrifices imposed on the individual within this form of social life – and the isolation and impotence of the individual to bring such a transformation about. Adorno argues – and I won’t elaborate on his analysis here – that much of what Freud took to be innate psychological structure derives, instead, from the violence of socialisation into such a context, from the scars inflicted by the ego on itself when, confronted with its own powerlessness, it responds by repressing conscious awareness of potentials for transformation, and driving emancipatory impulses into the unconscious realm.

Adorno suggests that several consequences follow from this form of socialisation: a brittleness and attenuation of the ego, which renders it easier for the ego itself to be overwhelmed by infantile and irrational impulses; the presence of unusually strong barriers separating the unconscious from other dimensions of psychic life, which has the effect of “freezing” the unconscious in an infantile state, and undermining the ability to sublimate infantile desires; and – because on some level the awareness of transformative potentials persists – an unconscious reservoir of rage at the unnecessary sacrifices imposed by an unjust society. All of these things, Adorno suggests, encourage susceptibility to forms of mass mobilisation that are directed specifically against the realisation of potentials for transformation, and that tap into impulses to destroy others (particularly members of vulnerable minorities whose social exclusion can be misrecognised as unmerited freedom from hated social constraints) as well as desires for self-destruction.

Adorno’s account thus suggests that widespread desires for destruction or self-destruction might be “typical” – particularly in moments when individual powerlessness comes to be experienced as particularly acute. While fuelled in some sense by an experience of transformative potentials, these destructive desires are not, within Adorno’s framework, masks for utopian longing, but blind rage and pain at sacrifices unjustly imposed – a rage and pain that, as I’ve discussed here before, can sometimes try to “rationalise” its own sacrifices through the destructive imposition of equivalent sacrifices on others.

I’ll stop here (it’s getting very late on my end and, in any event, I’ve probably said as much as I can on Adorno without diving into the murky depths…) with just one final point of clarification to avert possible confusion: the structure of this post, ending as it does with Adorno’s account, may suggest that I approve of his interpretation. In reality, I’m actually quite critical of this dimension of Adorno’s work. Specifically (and I can’t fully develop this point here, as I haven’t explored the issue sufficiently above), Adorno uses this appropriation of psychoanalytic theory, among other things, to account for certain qualitative characteristics of forms of subjectivity that I think can be explained far more easily via sociological analysis. As well, there is a certain element to Adorno’s reworking of Freud that – for all its scathing criticisms – is a bit too literal and loyal, such that the analysis at its core likely requires Freud’s psychodynamic structures to be more “material” than I suspect they’re regarded even within most psychoanalytic traditions. Although I’ve outlined a few elements of Adorno’s analysis above in order to give a sense of what he is trying to do, I’m not particularly drawn to the actual contents of his psychological theory.

I am, however, drawn to his question – the question of whether the experience of living in a society that suggests the potential for its own transformation might, under certain historical circumstances, render likely the emergence of abstractly destructive sensibilities.

At the same time, I am cautious of elements in Sinthome’s post – of how quickly the interpretation jumps from the claim (which the Freud quotation already reveals as somewhat contentious) that manifest fantasies of destruction might have some kind of non-destructive latent content, to the even more contentious claim that the specific latent content might be utopian in character. (I want to be very careful here, as I’m aware that Sinthome was writing an off-the-cuff conversational piece – and with some provocation from me, at that – and I don’t want to criticise the post as though it had been intended to represent a fully developed theory.)

I am, however, drawn to way in which Sinthome’s approach captures the intersubjective character of what we generally experience and articulate as individual and subjective experience – avoiding Adorno’s reduction to a materialistically conceived notion of psychological “structures”, and opening the potential to analyse the ways in which our intersubjective interactions can enable us to rearticulate even the forms of trauma to which Adorno calls attention, while opening a way beyond the pessimism intrinsic to Adorno’s approach.

I’m unfortunately not in the position of offering a personal sense of how I would tackle these issues – a side effect of my focus on the sociological side of the equation. I do, though, think the underlying issue of the role of psychological theory within critical theory is an important one, which I should revisit with much greater regularity than I’ve done here thus far… For the moment, though, I’ll give the topic – and myself – a bit of a rest… ;-P

Updated to add: Sinthome has responded over at Larval Subjects, with some important qualifications to my analysis, which then leads me – as a novelty – to try to explain what I actually mean. ;-P I’m not sure I do a better job over there than I did here, but perhaps in all this circling around my point, I’ll eventually uncover what that point might be… ;-P

Two Wrongs? Or the Opposite of an Opposite?

Note: This post originated as a comment on LMagee’s post on Hegel’s “Lordship and Bondage” discussion, but grew too long to post directly as a comment, so I’ve lifted it here… Following the convention in these discussions, quotations and references are taken from the source text here, problematic as that might be…


Okay. What to do with this passage… Perhaps perversely, I’m inclined to read this section as a critical text – as something concerned with setting out what I would tend to call a standpoint of critique to ground the normative evaluation of the social relationship being described. Of course, within Hegel’s framework, critique is never abstractly negative – it never moves through the simple and direct rejection of what is being criticised. Instead, critique moves, in the first instance, precisely through a recognition of the necessity of what it criticises. Critique thus first seeks to make sense of its target – to move beyond the object of critique by first grasping it, and then demonstrating how that object is inadequate to a certain standard (generally, a standard that can understood to be immanently implied by the object itself, so that the target of critique can be criticised for the way in which it fails to achieve its own goals…).

On one level, of course, this critical dimension of Hegel’s text is quite clear and explicit (inasmuch as one is ever safe using these particular words to describe Hegel…). The discussion of lordship and bondage in a narrow sense is situated within a longer series of reflections on self-consciousness, which centre on the need for acknowledgement or recognition by another self-consciousness, and which outline what is intended, I think, to be a normative ideal of uncoerced mutual recognition. Hegel describes this normative ideal of recognition in the following terms:

Self-consciousness has before it another self-consciousness; it has come outside itself. This has a double significance. First it has lost its own self, since it finds itself as an other being; secondly, it has thereby sublated that other, for it does not regard the other as essentially real, but sees its own self in the other.

It must cancel this other. To do so is the sublation of that first double meaning, and it therefore a second double meaning. First, it must set itself to sublate the other independent being, in order thereby to become certain of itself as true being, secondly, it thereupon proceeds to sublate its own self, for this other is itself.

This sublation in a double sense of its otherness in a double sense is at the same time a return in a double sense to its self. For, firstly, through sublation, it gets back itself, because it becomes one with itself again through the cancelling of its otherness; but secondly, it likewise gives otherness back again to the other self-consciousness, for it was aware of being in the other, it cancels this its own being in the other and thus lets the other again go free.

This process of self-consciousness in relation to another self-consciousness has in this manner been represented as the action of one alone. But this action on the part of the one has itself the double significance of being at once its own action and the action of that other as well. For the other is likewise independent, shut up within itself, and there is nothing in it which is not there through itself. The first does not have the object before it only in the passive form characteristic primarily of the object of desire, but as an object existing independently of itself, over which therefore it has no power to do anything for its own behalf, if that object does not per se do what the first does to it. The process then is absolutely the double process of both self-consciousnesses. Each sees the other as the same as itself; each itself does what it demands on the part of the other, and for that reason does what it does, only so far as the other does the same. Action from one side only would be useless, because what is to happen can only be brought about by means of both. (179-182)

My temptation is to take the passage above as a sort of preliminary determination of a critical ideal – an ideal pointing to the potential for mutual intersubjective recognition. This ideal then provides a critical standpoint against which the forms of intersubjectivity outlined in the subsequent passages can then be assessed, to determine how well they enable the potentials for such mutual recognition to be expressed. Having set out this ideal, Hegel next moves from the ideal to an analysis of specific forms of intersubjectivity – with the intent, I believe, of evaluating these forms of intersubjectivity against the critical standard he has articulated. He flags this move in the text:

Consciousness finds that it immediately is and is not another consciousness, as also that this other is for itself only when it cancels itself as existing for itself, and had self-existence only in the self-existence of the other. Each is the mediating term to the other, through which each mediates and unites itself with itself; and each is to itself and to the other an immediate self existing reality, which, at the same time, exists thus for itself only through this mediation. They recognize themselves as mutually recognizing one another.

This pure conception of recognition, of duplication of self-consciousness within its unity, we must now consider in the way its process appears for self-consciousness. (184-185 – bold text mine)

Where Hegel goes next, as I read the text, is to an analysis of various forms of intersubjectivity – each of which, I think, he analyses in order to measure them against his “pure conception” – his critical ideal – of the potential for mutual recognition.

He begins by analysing a form of intersubjectivity that reads, to me, a bit like a Hobbesian state of nature: a form of “intersubjectivity” in which subjects confront one another essentially outside the realms of established social (intersubjective) relationships. I read Hegel here as trying, essentially, to embed this conception of the state of nature within his framework – reframing the concept of the war of all against all, within his own account of how self-consciousness attempts to achieve self-certainty. Hegel thus interprets the forms of subjectivity expressed in the war of all against all as attempts by self-consciousness to affirm its own existence by risking its own life, and by trying to annihilate the life of the other – both of which Hegel interprets as attempts by self-consciousness to assert its lack of dependence on life – its potential to exist even outside of and beyond life. In these passages, Hegel seeks to make sense of this form of intersubjectivty within his system, while also judging it as a failed attempt, as attempt that could never have achieved its aim:

This trial by death, however, cancels both the truth which was to result from it, and therewith the certainty of self altogether. For just as life is the natural “position” consciousness, independence without absolute negativity, so death is the natural “negation” of consciousness, negation without independence, which thus remains without the requisite significance of actual recognition. Through death, doubtless, there has arisen the certainty that both did stake their life, and held it lightly both in their own case and in the case of the other; but that is not for those who underwent this struggle. They cancel their consciousness which had its place in this alien element of natural existence; in other words, they cancel themselves and are sublated as terms or extremes seeking to have existence on their own account. But along with this there vanishes from the play of change the essential moment, viz. that of breaking up into extremes with opposite characteristics; and the middle term collapses into a lifeless unity which is broken up into lifeless extremes, merely existent and not opposed. And the two do not mutually give and receive one another back from each other through consciousness; they let one another go quite indifferently, like things. Their act is abstract negation, not the negation characteristic of consciousness, which cancels in such a way that it preserves and maintains what is sublated, and thereby survives its being sublated. (188 – italics mine)

So the goal here, as I read it, is to understand a particular form of subjectivity – to position that form of subjectivity with a theoretical system, so that it becomes clear this theoretical system can grasp that form of subjectivity in its qualitative specificity, without abstracting or generalising those qualitative characteristics away, as would be the case if the specific form of subjectivity were merely grouped into some higher and more formal category – while also making a clear judgment that this form of subjectivity, while comprehensible, can also be criticised for its inadequacy to its aims.

I take the same strategy to be in play, as the discussion moves more directly into the topic of lordship and bondage: I think that the intention is to hold this form of intersubjectivity (and the forms of subjectivity associated with it) up to critique, where critique will follow the same form of showing that this form of intersubjectivity can be comprehended, but is also inadequate to what it intends to achieve.

Hegel suggests that the attempt to affirm self-consciousness through the war of all against all, while inadequate to its aims, nevertheless led to the achievement of an historical insight: the insight that life, as well as “pure” self-consciousness, is essential to self-consciousness (83). What follows the achievement of this insight is the emergence of a new form of intersubjectivity – expressed in the lordship and bondage relationship – that Hegel characterises as an attempt to distribute different aspects of self-consciousness across hierarchical social roles. In Hegel’s account, this new form of intersubjectivity appears to create a situation in which the Master achieves recognition – and therefore self-certainty – through the subordination of the bondsman. Hegel argues, however, that the essential inequality of the relationship undermines the Master’s ability to achieve any genuine self-certainty:

But for recognition proper there is needed the moment that what the master does to the other he should also do to himself, and what the bondsman does to himself, he should do to other also. On that account a form of recognition has arisen that is one sided and unequal. (191)

This one-sided and unequal form of recognition Hegel then judges as inadequate – immanently – because “this object does not correspond to its notion” (192).

Hegel then moves from analysing bondage as it appears in its relationship to lordship, to analysing the form of self-consciousness generated by bondage, as it is “in and for itself” (194). Here Hegel moves into a complex discussion of how the formative experience of fear on the one hand, and service on the other, generate the historical conditions of possibility for an awareness that desire can be restrained and directed into the transformation of nature. In Hegel’s account, this combination of fear and service transforms the nature of desire, making it possible for the bondsman to become aware of “having and being a ‘mind of his own'” through the externalisation of self in the purposive transformation of nature (196).

The question then becomes whether Hegel, having established the necessity of the experience of bondage as a formative moment in the constitution of self-consciousness, intends to suggest that the form of intersubjectivity that gave rise to this formative experience remains essential. Does Hegel believe, in other words, that a social context characterised by class domination continues to be necessary – such that his theoretical system then serves as a rationalisation for such domination by offering the bondsmen the consolation that, in spite of appearances, this social arrangement is better for them than for the Master…

Hegel’s text, I believe, suggests that he does not believe this form of intersubjectivity must – or should – be preserved. Instead, the text suggests (at least to this point – I’ll want to revisit this passage again, from the standpoint of the work as a whole) that he accords the master-bondsman form of intersubjectivity the same status that he accorded the form of intersubjectivity expressed in the war of all against all: that he regards it as a constitutive moment for the realisation of self-consciousness, in that it leads to the historical achievement of a particular insight about self-consciousness, but that he also regards this form of intersubjectivity as, in itself, a failed attempt to achieve self certainty. He flags this, I believe, at the conclusion to the section on lordship and bondage, by setting up an explicit contrast between a vision of the kind of freedom that could be achieved by intersubjective relationships grounded on mutual recognition, and an inferior vision of freedom that “does not get beyond the attitude of bondage” (196). Hegel argues:

For this reflexion into self the two moments, fear and service in general, as also that of formative activity, are necessary: and at the same time both must exist in a universal manner. Without the discipline of service and obedience, fear remains formal and does not spread over the whole reality of existence. Without the formative activity shaping the thing, fear remains inward and mute, and consciousness does not become objective for itself. Should consciousness shape and form the thing without the initial state of absolute fear, then it has a merely vain and futile “mind of its own”; for its form of negativity is not negativity per se, and hence its formative activity cannot furnish the consciousness of itself as essentially real. If it has endured not absolute fear, but merely some slight anxiety, the negative reality has remained internal to it, its substance has not been through and through infected thereby. Since the entire content of its natural consciousness has not tottered and shaken, it is still inherently a determinate mode of being; having a “mind of its own” is simply stubbornness, a type of freedom which does not get beyond the attitude of bondage. As little as the pure form can become its essential nature, so little is that form, considered as extending over particulars, a universal formative activity, an absolute notion; it is rather a piece of cleverness, which has mastery within a certain range, but not over the universal power nor over the entire objective reality. (196)

Is this formative experience of fear and service, though, something Hegel sees as essential only as a moment in the process of historical development? Or does he see it as something that must be reconstituted historically, even within a society predicated on a very different form of intersubjectivity? My sense – because this would be consistent with what seems to be Hegel’s notion of transcendence as a process whereby something is both cancelled and preserved, as well as from more direct flags within his text – is that he does not believe that the original historical conditions for generating an insight must be replicated, in order for the insight itself to be preserved within the new form of intersubjectivity that has transcended the old. The form of intersubjectivity characteristic of the lordship and bondage, for example, does not replicate the specific form of social relationship (intersubjectivity) characteristic of the war of all against all; it does, however, reconstitute – in a different way – a means of achieving the same fundamental insight that self-consciousness requires life (although in the new form of intersubjectivity, this insight is preserved unequally – not available to the master). My sense would be that a new society, founded, along the lines suggested by Hegel’s critical ideal, on forms of intersubjectivity predicated on mutual recognition, would, in Hegel’s view, preserve the insights historically achieved through the experience of lordship and bondage, without the replication of the historical conditions or social hierarchies through which such insights were generated…

But my laptop battery is flashing an angry red warning signal at me – further discussion will need to await a moment when I am more… plugged in… ;-P

Decoding the Subject

I’m having one of my periodic difficulties posting over at Larval Subjects, but wanted to respond to a particularly important post Sinthome has written, titled “Recoding the Social”. Since what I have pasted below was originally written as a comment, rather than as a self-contained piece, it’s best to read the original post first, and then this response.

My response, I should note, is not intended as a critique of Sinthome’s post (although my comment may well suffer from some significant misunderstandings, given that I am writing about a theoretical tradition with which I am relatively unfamiliar, and responding in this sense to content I’ve received second or third hand…). Instead, I am intending to draw attention to some elements of Sinthome’s recent work that I think are particularly important, and too often overlooked, in attempts to construct critical theories. Note that Sinthome’s post explores a number of important and substantial issues that I do not canvass in this response.


I’ll have to apologise in advance, as I don’t have the time to develop this point in proper detail. What I wanted to do was to pick up on a couple of small elements within your post, and try to think them together. You begin with, I think, a quite important point about the way in which theoretical work – whether in the context of analysis, or in the context of critique – involves essentially trying to make some sense of the phenomena with which we’re confronted, by asking, in your words:

What must the subject be like for this to be possible?

What I want to do here is draw attention to something about the subject – the critical subject – that seems often overlooked in social theoretic discussions, but that seems to me to bear a strong importance for another question you have asked here – a question I also think is vitally important:

what renders an individual susceptible to an event in the first place?

I think you are quite right to ask whether, given the hypothesis that social relations can be defined in ordinary time, so to speak, by what you have called the encyclopaedia (by what I might tend to call a particular network of concrete social relations), we are then in a very difficult position when it comes to explaining how individuals might possess the potential to become subjects – or, as you have expressed the point:

if the regime of the encyclopaedia is as total as Badiou and Ranciere suggest, if the encyclopaedia is organized precisely around disavowing the possibility of anything that isn’t counted, then what are the conditions of possibility under which a subject might be produced at all.

You then move on to discuss the notion that our situatedness in any context is never complete – I’ll come back to this point. What I wanted to point out first, not because I think it’s something that you have missed (I take your points as, in a sense, assuming my own – I just want to take the opportunity to spell something out very explicitly here), but because it seems to be something both glaringly visible, and yet often missed in formulations such as those you quote from Badiou and Ranciere: if the encyclopaedia were complete, surely we would not be able to name it as such. Surely the fact that we are engaged in critical discourse already gives the lie to claims – even if these claims understanding themselves to be critical – that, as you have paraphrased it:

The order of knowledge or the police presents itself as a natural order, as a world in which everything has a proper place, function, and identity.

If we can make such a comment, with critical intent, then the comment is itself a contradiction: we are already seeing through the false veneer of nature we are claiming characterises the encyclopaedia. We are, however, failing to ask ourselves what you have rightly defined as the motivating question of analysis – what also, I think, should be the motivating question of critique: What must the subject be like for this to be possible?

The existence of critique tells us something about the subject – something that critical theory needs, I think, to keep quite firmly in focus. If we are also operating from a standpoint of immanence, than the existence of critique also tells us something about the object – and here I can loop back to your point, which is that the object itself must possess “weak and symptomatic points within the symbolic edifice wherein which it might be possible to force an event and precipitate subjects in Badiou’s sense of the word”.

You have formulated your points in the context of a transcendental framework. I am open to the possibility that such a framework exists, but you also know that I am interested in the issue of why such critical thoughts – the ability to see past and to contest the naturalness of the encyclopaedia – emerge historically from a particular moment. To me, this historicity is another issue we must engage, when we ask “What must the subject be like for this to be possible?” – and, immanently, what must the object be like, as well…

But these points can’t be developed here, and in any event my goal with this comment was mainly to draw attention to this strange self-contradictory element within so many approaches to critique: that critique consists in criticising the doxic character of particular systems of social relations, without realising that the act of critique itself must mean that something more complicated than mere doxa is afoot… Somehow, the theorist has stepped outside of the frame – not in your approach, which I see as trying to think through these issues in a more self-reflexive way – but in the works perhaps of some of the theorists you cite.

I should note, of course, that I am interpreting these theorists at one (arguably more than one…) remove, so I am happy to be corrected if I have misunderstood their approaches (in a sense, nothing would be more likely). Certainly, though, in my own field and with work with which I am more familiar, such self-contradictions seem very common – enough to make it seem worthwhile to draw attention to how deceptively crucial is the question on which your post pivots: What must the subject be like for this to be possible?

Updated to add: this conversation continues over at Larval Subjects, where Sinthome has added a few thoughts in a new post, and where I now seem to be able to comment normally. Best to read the discussion over there, but I’ll still paste my response here, as a placeholder for something I should (at some point) pick up on this blog in more detail:

Just very quickly, I wanted to pick up on your formulation at the end:

Either critique is already itself a product of what I’m here calling the encyclopaedia (I’m more inclined to adopt N.Pepperell’s language of “concrete social networks”), or the subject is never completely interpellated by the system of social relations in which its enmeshed.

There is a third option: that our social context is not exhausted by concrete social networks, but should instead be conceptualised as something more like the movement of a more abstract, dynamic social context through a series of more concrete social institutions and practices (which we sometimes mistake for context as such).

This kind of complex context would also generate a situation in which, as you put it, “the subject is never completely enmeshed” in its concrete social networks (and also, for that matter, never completely enmeshed in its more abstract context) – without necessitating a transcendental leap outside of context…

But this is, of course, also a placemarker… 😉

On “Lordship and Bondage”

NPepperell has brought in the new year with a wonderful series of introductory posts to our reading group’s current voyage to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit – while all I’ve brought back was this crappy t-shirt… In some attempt to remedy the one-sidedness of this discussion, I will post something on our most recent reading, on the section titled Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage. As Hegel says in introduction: “Self-consciousness… exists only in being acknowledged” (178). Please bear in mind that as with all of our reading group posts, conciseness is not a sin we could be easily accused of… Read more of this post