Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Present Twilight

So I haven’t written much substantive lately – and this post unfortunately won’t break that trend. ;-P Prosaic work responsibilities are bearing down on me and, for at least the next several weeks, I simply won’t have time to dig in to serious questions. Which is frustrating, because I feel at the moment like I’m absolutely seething with ideas that are searching for expression and form. And writing – structured, sustained, in-depth writing, rather than the sorts of scattershot sketches I can dash off in between other things – is the only way I know to show myself what I’m thinking – to discover what force, if any, these still-inchoate ideas might possess…

Folks who have known me for a while know that I toy a lot with concepts like “thinking the present as history” – with the potential for self-reflexivity – for applying to the theorist the same concepts and analytical strategies that the theorist applies to other objects – with whether it is possible, and to what extent it is possible, to transcend the backward-looking recognition that constitutes so much of our “knowledge” – with whether Hegel’s owl of Minerva must always fly at dusk…

Leaving formal theoretical considerations of such questions aside, one thing that has been occupying me recently is to what extent we might have some experiential basis for thinking of certain recent themes in the social theoretic literature as evidence of a kind of consolidation – evidence of the flight of Hegel’s owl, signifying a particularly clear vision of a period that has just passed us by – but which we are perhaps still thinking of as a vision of something we have “discovered” – something that is always true – or at least as a vision of our present, rather than of the contours of a time just ended…

It feels to me – and, again, people who have known me for a while, know that I am both very attentive to such feelings, and very sceptical of their empirical merits – as if we’ve seen a burst of excellent works on the concept of self-reflexivity (and related concepts such as differentiation) since the early 1990s, and I find myself wondering what twilight such works might express – what shifted, around and about that time, to make this topic something about which we could suddenly write with such clarity and insight?

I don’t take my own question at face value – I find myself first wanting to nail down whether there really was any kind of shift in intellectual production and, if so, what the character of that shift might be: Is it actually valid to claim that there were more things written on the theme of self-reflexivity after a certain period? Did a new term come to be used for an old topic around this time? Was there not a quantitative shift at all, but a shift in who found an interest in such themes – in the disciplinary locus of an interest, or in the prominence or scope of the theorists concerned with the issue? Would my sense that there was a shift simply dissolve on closer inspection? I am agnostic about the answers to all of these questions, but would want to get a clearer sense of those answers before I try to thematise the issue theoretically…

The issue becomes important, though, in the sense of getting a sense of how “live” a theoretical concern is – of developing a feel for whether a flowering of theoretical interest on a topic reflects something generative in an ongoing sense, or something more like a systematising, consolidating impulse (both can of course co-exist). There are strategic reasons to be interested in such things, as individual interest in a theoretical approach won’t have any strict overlap with collective interest, and having a feel for how a collective discussion might “trend” can be useful in communicating concepts effectively. At the same time, though, within the sort of immanent framework I’ve been playing with here, discursive shifts – shifts in forms of subjectivity – are related to shifts in intersubjective practice – meaning that tracking the winds of theoretical discourse about society, for example, can actually provide some very interesting evidence for shifts in the qualitative character of other dimensions of social practice.

My intution is that, if we want at some point to shift from backward-looking description of times from which we’ve emerged, to conceptualising the present as history, it can be particularly useful to track those seductive moments when many things suddenly appear clear – but, rather than just accepting this clarity as some kind of gift of insight or clear thinking, to keep firmly in view the possibility that this onslaught of clarity might reflect an unrecognised temporal break, providing us with a critical distance whose origins we have failed to register: to recognise the risk that our thoughts may be so crystalline, precisely to the degree that we have become out of synch… The question then becomes whether a better recognition of this possibility in any way mitigates the tendency to position ourselves relative to an object we have just left behind?

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