Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Self-Reflexive Defense [Updated x 3]

Long Endgame: White wins in 255 moves.Scott Eric Kaufman has been teasing us for a while now, in various settings, with the fact that he has been working on a piece on the history of theory in the ’70s and ’80s. He has now posted a draft of the piece at Acephalous – shorn, apparently, of its conclusion – and is inviting comments: head on over, if you haven’t already had a look, as the piece is both interesting in its own terms, and also provides the potential for a much more grounded discussion of some of the substantive issues that shoot through the cross-blog “theory wars”.

As always seems to happen with me, my own reaction to this piece is somewhat side on and arguably not terribly relevant to what Scott is trying to do. I liked Scott’s draft: it’s well written and structured, offers a cogent critique of the limitations and distorting effects of a certain form of socialisation into theoretical work, and builds toward recommendations for the creation of new institutional spaces for interdisciplinary exchange oriented toward the testing of theoretical concepts – recommendations that I think are sound and that I would wholehearedly endorse. So on the level of direct and immediate response to the piece, I have very little substantive to add.

Instead, I found myself thinking back on a series of comments Scott made at Long Sunday, in the most recent edition of the “theory wars” debate. In that discussion, Scott gestured toward what I would call his “standpoint of critique” – outlining some normative standards for making judgments about theoretical approaches, and gesturing toward an explanation for how he would “ground” those standards – how he would self-reflexively account for and justify such normative standards, not by relativising them as individual idiosyncracies, but as collectively available forms of critical thought. While reading his draft, I found myself thinking about how it might manifest the positions he outlined in the Long Sunday discussion – and, especially, wondering whether thinking through some of the implications of that standpoint might cast some of the claims he makes in his draft in a slightly different light.

What I’d like to do here is think around a few of these issues very briefly – not with critical intention, but in an exploratory, open-ended way. I should also note that I fully recognise the dangers of trying to pull someone’s theoretical position out of a rapid-fire online debate, so my goal here is not to hold Scott to the positions he outlined in the Long Sunday discussion – I don’t make any assumptions that he regards these gestural comments as the best articulations of his views, or even that I have understood his statements as he intended them. My goal is more to use Scott’s intervention into this recent debate as a convenient touchstone for thinking through some of the issues that arise when we engage in normative judgments of competing theoretical approaches.

Note that, in trying to reconstruct Scott’s position for purposes of this post, I’ll pull some of Scott’s statements out of the order in which they unfolded in the discussion – Long Sunday doesn’t seem to let me link to individual comments, so apologies if this structure of presentation is a bit confusing for anyone trying to track back to the original context. Apologies, as well, that lack of time on my end doesn’t allow a more adequate discussion of these issues, which are both interesting and important, and deserve a more thorough and adequate treatment than I’ll currently be able to provide.

I want to start by drawing attention to Scott’s delightful response to a critic who complained about Scott’s use of a “historicist gambit” to reach for an outside normative perspective from which to pass judgment on specific kinds of theory. With characteristic cleverness, Scott picked up on the term and wielded it to explain the theoretical strategy underlying his approach:

“Historicist gambit” is a good way to characterize it, only in the chess instead of colloquial sense: I play the Historicist gambit knowing that it’ll require certain sacrifices be made; increase the likelihood of certain positions over others; &c. I play this game because I think it’s what’ll best allow me to “win,” i.e. accurately describe the object before me, be it a poem, novel, intellectual trend, &c. I aware of the price I pay and have accepted to play within the limits I’ve imposed upon myself; in short, I know it’s a gambit and what that entails.

The alternative, in my experience, has been to fetishize immanence and make arguments about the relation of one body of thought to another as if they existed outside institutions, as if theoretical work transpired in a Platonic realm of Ivory Towers (to borrow from Jeff Williams). It doesn’t, and never has. Institutional forces have always existed, always deformed thought, and a proper institutional history accounts for both the interplay of ideas and the context in which that interplay took place. To do the latter, you’re forced to play the Historicist Gambit.

Against another critic who objected that Scott’s version of historicisation was a form of critical “relegation”, Scott demurs:

Not really. It acknowledges the fate of all things to become, you know, historical. Ignoring the longue durée in favor of a radical presentism warps any examination, regardless of the object. Now, the durée here may not actually be all that longue, so to speak, but the principle remains the same.

And, in another exchange, Scott argues that his approach offers a critical standpoint outside of, but relevant to, the theoretical approaches that are the objects of his critique:

You decline to answer your own hypothetical question, mourning a foreclosure without considering the claims you made earlier — namely, that certain groups are constituted by their internal debates…

In other words, this post seems like little more than an attempt by the trees to declare where the forest ends. Which is fine. Always happens. However, the trees need a little humility, need to recognize that those outside the forest may have some insight into where it ends — may, in fact, have a perspective the trees can’t even imagine.

Not fun thoughts, I know, but there’s no escaping them. History will happen to us all, one day.

Wonderful, condensed statements – let’s see if we can unpack at least a few of their implications. I take the last statement to indicate that Scott is, in fact, looking for a standpoint – a position from which a phenomenon can be judged. He seems somewhat uncomfortable with the notion that his standpoint might be a normative one – repeatedly attempting to sidestep this issue by appealing to concepts like the adequacy of his analysis to its object, or some notion of either pragmatic grasp or sober factual accuracy. Personally, I don’t think this sidestep is necessary – trying to locate a standpoint that enables you to see what an object “is”, or to judge a theoretical approach based on whether it grasps a dimension of experience adequately, is simply making a normative judgment with reference to a tacit ideal of truth. The desire to make such judgments is, in my opinion, nothing to be ashamed of – and trying to downplay the intrinsically judgmental aspect of this approach can in my opinion have only negative consequences – both in terms of undermining our own ability consciously to reflect on, and refine, our ideals, and in terms of causing the negative reactions of others – who feel criticised, and rightly – to appear to be unmotivated and unreasonable, when in fact these reactions make perfect sense as responses to the sting of the critique. If, as Scott suggests, this is a game – a strategy – then surely it is a critical one – and we therefore owe it to ourselves and to those we criticise to articulate our own normative standards as explicitly as possible – and to defend those standards by providing a plausible account for why anyone else should embrace them.

It is at this point, though, that Scott’s “game” metaphor – with its tacit Weberian imagery that suggests that other standpoints may be as readily chosen and defended as analytical means, if we have pledged fealty to a different set of substantive ends – begins to appear in tension with the sorts of judgments he seems to want to make. Those judgments seem to involve some notion that things change over time – and that an “adequate” analysis must somehow be able to capture this historical dimension of its object. They involve some notion of self-reflexivity: “history will happen to us all” – a statement that presumably captures the theorist/historian, as well as the object of their analysis, and suggests the need for a self-reflexive application of normative standards and analytical techniques to the person undertaking a critical analysis of theoretical approaches.

Those judgments also seem to involve a notion that there is some context to which a theorist/historian can achieve access that transcends the concrete social relationships embodied in institutions – I say this realising that the claim may sound slightly ironic, as Scott makes strong argumentative claims about the need to locate knowledge within institutions, but I regard this as a position required by Scott’s strong assertion of self-reflexivity: if we’re all caught up in history, and if we reject the notion that thought might bounce off against other thought in some kind of ungrounded Platonic space, then we cannot think or behave – at least if we value consistency – as though our own thought escapes this frame. If we find that we can “see through” or gain some “outside” perspective on the limitations or distortions caused by particular institutions, then this perspective must also somehow be “inside” our historical context in some broader sense – suggesting that there is some position that is both historically embedded, and yet transcendent of particular institutional contexts.

If Scott were asserting incommensurability – if he weren’t expecting for his critique to persuade, to appeal to normative standards others could in principle understand – this self-reflexive standard could be met by some notion of duelling institutional contexts: Scott caught up in his, the objects of his criticism caught up theirs, and Scott’s critical analysis a sort of performance or enactment of his institutional space, rather than something aimed at meaningful and mutual engagement with his interlocutors. I take it, however, that Scott does intend to engage in some form of mutual interaction – and that he does posit, if only very tacitly, the existence of some level of historical context that makes such an engagement plausible.

This tacit view is reflected, I would suggest, in some of the metaphors Scott uses in the Long Sunday debate – where, for example, he criticises those caught up in the trees, from the standpoint of someone standing outside the forest – suggesting that he somehow feels he stands “outside” what he analyses critically – or recognises tacitly that his position might require some notion of a standpoint not caught up in the institutional space that is the object of its critique, to make sense of the form of argument he puts forward. If we combine this notion that there is some standpoint that transcends particular institutions – thus rendering them permeable to our critical gaze – with the notion that all things are historical, and that the theorist/historian are themselves caught up in the same sorts of historical processes they also want to analysis, then we end up with a tacit notion that our critique is unfolding within a somewhat complex historical context: a context that, on the one hand, gives us the ability to perceive certain distorting effects of institutional spaces while, on the other, provides us with access to some standpoint that is not fully encompassed by those same institutional spaces, and from which those institutions could therefore be judged, in ways where the validly of the judgment has at least some potential to be understood by those “inside”. This approach doesn’t mean, however, that the theorist/historian stands outside of history, or of context – history will happen to all of us – but rather that they are applying a perspective offered by one dimension of an overarching historical context, to perceive, make sense of, and judge some of the tendencies visible in a different dimension of that same historical context.

So we find ourselves in the position where critics – and this was manifest in a number of the responses Scott received in the Long Sunday discussion – demand: Historicist! Embed thyself! – and then take the failure to do this as a sign of the invalidity or bad faith of the original critique. My position is that this is a fair call – not in the sense that I take Scott’s critique to be invalid or in bad faith, but in the sense that the historically-embedded, self-reflexive nature of normative ideals invoked by this approach does, in fact, make it incumbent on us to “close the loop” and apply to ourselves the same sorts of analytical strategies we apply to others – and to do this in such a way that we can account for the normative standards to which we appeal. When we fail to close the loop, we appear to be removing ourselves from the frame – asserting a privileged position that others, quite understandably, wonder why they can’t just claim for themselves. If we don’t want this to happen, I suspect we need to eliminate the position – not just by asserting as a stance that such a position doesn’t exist, but by unfolding a more consistent self-reflexive critique that provides us with a more consistent means of grounding our normative judgments.

So… These were the thoughts I carried with me into reading Scott’s draft. I won’t summarise the draft in detail – it is really worth reading in its own right, and I can’t stress strongly enough how metatheoretical issues of the sort I’m raising here really don’t connect in any direct way with this piece, which is an intervention – and an important one – driving toward the creation of cross-disciplinary spaces for theoretical debate. For present purposes, I intend only to isolate out a few specific moments of the draft, in order to pose some questions about what it might look like, what impact it might have, to think this piece in relation to the sorts of normative standards I’ve sketched above.

On one level, Scott presents us with a tragedy of unintended consequences: new publication technologies, which on one level were liberatory for their ability to open up spaces for the discussion of marginalised areas of research, also facilitated the rise of isolated and balkanised intellectual micro-communities that incubated mutually-reinforcing in-group discourses and promoted hyper-specialisation and the growth of sub-sub-disciplines – fragmenting intellectual discourse and undermining the ability to recognise commonalities or to benefit from external critique. This process was further augmented by a canonisation of significant theoretical texts into a series of anthologies that were intended to raise the theoretical sophistication of the field by propagating important critical theoretic concepts. Unfortunately, the impact of such anthologies on pedagogical practice undermined this intended effect, resulting in a form of socialisation into theory as an eclectic and dehistoricised toolkit from which students were encouraged to mix and match ill-fitting conceptual tools. A somewhat more tacit narrative suggests that these technological and pedagogical shifts were spun in these particular directions – with these specific unintended consequences – in partial response to the broader context of the transformation of the academic job market in the 1970s and 1980s.

The consequence, Scott suggests, was a kind of institutionalisation of practically – if not necessarily intellectually – incommensurable micro-communities, alongside a general decline in the institutional and personal capacity to engage in serious and sustained critical debates across theoretical divides. This institutionalisation has progressed to the point where it is difficult to see where such engagements would take place, in the absence of the creation of fundamentally new kinds of institutional environments – a position Scott underscores with a poignant concluding quotation from Vijay Prashad, issuing a clarion call for overcoming the balkanised intellectual micro-communities that have developed in ethnic studies, but relegated to publishing this demand in the specialist Journal of Asian American Studies.

So Scott offers a clear, critical vision, articulated in the form of an historical account of how his object of critique has come to be. He advocates for the creation of new institutional spaces for interdisciplinary exchange – with a tacit nod to the internet as a potential technological enabler. He also puts forward some interesting critical standards – particularly in the form of a concept of “dialectical pluralism”, a strategy in which communities that share very few substantive assumptions might nevertheless benefit from the refinement that comes through the confrontation with fundamentally divergent theoretical and empirical traditions. While Scott uses the vocabulary of “incommensurability” in discussing such communities, he also appeals to a sort of meta-context of communicative ideals – those expressed in the notion that discussion amongst communities ought to take place based on “an aggressive commitment to strong beliefs, weakly held” – that point to a background network of shared norms that are conceptualised, at least potentially, to be comprehensible by, and defensible to, communities that might make claims that are incommensurable on other levels of abstraction.

I’m sympathetic to such ideals. And yet I found myself wondering how Scott might “close the loop” – how he might explain – in terms of the sorts of analytical strategies and concepts in which he unfolds his critique of theoretical eclecticism – the historical ground for the alternative he advocates. He evidently doesn’t believe his position has yet achieved institutional form – this is precisely why he would write a piece such as this, which is clearly conceptualised as an intervention into a still-open field of historical potentials, in which such interventions might be hoped to have an impact on the subsequent course of history. Moreover, his normative standards retain the qualitative distinction between local, concrete contexts – particular intellectual communities – and some kind of overarching set of normative ideals that transcend those local incommensurabilities and ground the potential for some kind of productive cross-communal discussion. Such positions suggest that we understand our historical context to be comprised of more than already-realised institutions, more than concrete and self-constituting communities. What is this “more”, though – and can we conceptualise such a thing while still meeting the standards of thinking that “history will happen to all of us”, and that the theorist/historian therefore cannot be conceptualised as somehow residing outside the frame?

It is here that I began to worry a bit about what might be a small slippage in the draft – a small tension between the unfolding of the critique, and the sorts of normative standards that Scott suggests he might be trying to uphold in the Long Sunday discussion. By failing to analyse his own historical position – to embed himself, as he tries to embed the objects of his critique – Scott risks being, I think, misunderstood in ways that might then undermine receptiveness to his quite important normative goals. Tacitly, this piece suggests an opposition between how it analyses the past – the “fogbank” that resulted from the unfortunate and unintended consequences of technological and pedagogical shifts – and Scott’s own position that, because it is never historicised in the same way, is presented in the text as though it emerges from… clear thinking… As though Scott has somehow reasoned himself out of the dilemmas of an earlier, and now visibly problematic, approach to theory. I found myself wondering whether this argumentative option remains available, once we begin to say things like “history will happen to all of us”. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to talk about the sort of historical shifts that help make Scott’s own critical perspective more plausible, more historically intuitive, at our current moment – so that we can understand our own critique as itself something historically achieved? And wouldn’t this react back, at least a bit, on the critique itself – orienting our enquiry toward reasons that an earlier articulation of theory might have been, in fact, adequate in some specific ways to its own moment – even if, for determinate reasons, it might no longer be adequate to ours.

Scott invokes the phrase “Hegelian seriousness” at key strategic moments throughout his piece. I suppose thoughts of Hegel for me always involve thoughts of determinate negation – and I became curious what form Scott’s critique might take, if it were to take the form of such a negation. Perhaps it would involve an investigation of the way in which theoretical eclecticism might make more intuitive sense during periods of rapid and dramatic transformation – might appeal in ways that make it easier for people to overlook the downsides Scott identifies so well, and might even be justifiable in some senses Scott might not explicitly canvas. Perhaps the fact that we can no longer find it in ourselves to overlook the downsides of such theoretical approaches also tells us something – perhaps it should send us casting about for reasons that we have become so sensitive to a different constellation of problems and of potentials, a constellation that drives us to advocate for a new period of institutional reform. It may be that a dose of “Hegelian seriousness” might react back, at least a bit, on the way in which historicisation is tacitly equated with the study of institutionalisation in some of Scott’s statements, sensitising us to investigate the sorts of irritants that drive dissatisfaction with existing institutions, and motivate the responsiveness to proposals for institutional transformation…

None of which is to suggest that I think all of these issues should be covered in Scott’s article – even if Scott were to agree with this line of questioning, a single article will never juggle all of these issues, and articles written as interventions need to strive for a particular clarity in their advocacy, and can’t be bogged down in the sorts of epistemological and ontological minutiae I’ve been raising here. So I suppose what I’m offering is more on the level of associations around Scott’s piece, wondering what approach might allow such an argument to be made self-reflexively, in a form adequate to the insight that “history will happen to us all”…

Updated: Just wanted to note that Scott has now posted on this subject at The Valve and Acephalous, in case folks should want to follow the discussion around and about those parts. For my part, I have to get back to my day (and night, and all hours in between) job before orange. draws attention once more to my persistent contradictory, procrastinatory nature… ;-P

Updated 19 Feb: Just a quick update to point to Eileen Joy’s thoughtful response to Scott’s piece, posted at the group blog In the Middle (and also at Acephalous). The response is complex, and should be read in its own right. Briefly, Joy contests key aspects of Scott’s analysis of the technological drivers of “balkanisation”, suggests that he may overstate the impact of anthologisation on pedagogical practice, at least at the postgraduate level, and worries that Scott’s normative standpoint tacitly points to a totalising, “disciplinary” and “masculinist”/agonistic ideal of theoretical engagement. Joy suggests that eclecticism could equally – and less problematically – be overcome through deep, specialist immersion in a small number of texts from a chosen theoretical tradition.

And (a bit later in the day) to point to Scott Eric Kaufman’s round-the-web review of responses to his piece.

Updated 21 Feb: And the discussion continues to flow, picked up by Jodi Dean at Long Sunday (cross-posted from I Cite). Jodi picks up on Eileen Joy’s post (which itself continues to provoke an excellent discussion over at In the Middle), and draws attention to the ramifications of this kind of theoretical debate when we expand our frame of reference outside the academy, and consider the real-world political stakes of what could otherwise be confused for a debate over academic turf. Jodi also queries some points Rich Puchalsky has raised in the discussion here about a commitment to incommensurability – arguing that, while Rich’s framing of the issue implies some kind of willed argumentative stance, the core issue is more one of competing ontological claims. Jodi concludes (but folks really should read her post in its entirety):

For me, incommensurability isn’t something one is committed to or not. It’s a description of the world (I prefer the term collapse of symbolic efficiency) that one can try to refute, resolve, deny, or accommodate. Generosity toward incommensurable views or positions is one mode of accommodation. In the political world, this is rarely possible (modus vivendi is one fragile possibility). In the academic world, it is often decided/determined budgetarily, but remains as a site of conflict and contestation–actually, not unlike in the political world. Perhaps, though, conflict over the details, the working through of momentary compromises is not trivial. Perhaps it is a kind of inching forward toward a necessarily impossible and unattainable resolution.

23 responses to “The Self-Reflexive Defense [Updated x 3]

  1. Scott Eric Kaufman February 17, 2007 at 11:28 am

    By failing to analyse his own historical position – to embed himself, as he tries to embed the objects of his critique – Scott risks being, I think, misunderstood in ways that might then undermine receptiveness to his quite important normative goals.

    In a sense, I’m taking the easy way out: to argue for dialectical pluralism is to argue against normative goals as a rule. Did I say “easy”? I meant “cheap.” You’re right, though, that I’m uncomfortable forwarding normative goals, but I’m not sure I would be if I were more philosophical. What I mean is — and this disappeared in the final version of the draft — because the object of literary study makes no claims to truth, literary scholars shouldn’t be limited to those modes of thought most likely to generate true statements about the world. Were literary scholars interested in truth-claims, this would be a terrible thing; but we’re interested in models of the world more than the world itself, so it isn’t necessarily an issue. Obviously it becomes one at a certain point, which is where I think your criticism is spot on.

    Namely, that any meta-theoretical critique can’t participate in the very culture whose creation it advocates. I’m not sure how to get around that problem, however. Conversely, I’m well aware that people making these claims — say, a Zizekian discussing national politics — feels differently about the truth value of the claims he or she makes. But I’m not sure what to do about that, either, except to draw a line around my discipline and say “We’re talking about imagined objects, so the only way we can understand what you’re saying is if we treat the same way we treat imagined objects.” (And I know people don’t like having their worldviews declared fictional.)

    I’ve managed to confuse myself, and I’m not going to be able to type myself out of these knots. So…be right back.

  2. Scott Eric Kaufman February 17, 2007 at 11:33 am

    Also, in case this got lost in the confusion up there, thanks for taking the time to read it. (And the abstract! Now I don’t have to write one.) The beast took me long enough to research and write.

  3. N Pepperell February 17, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    I’d be fine with this – except that you are making truth claims – when, for example, you make statements like:

    I play this game because I think it’s what’ll best allow me to “win,” i.e. accurately describe the object before me, be it a poem, novel, intellectual trend

    It’s a tacitly pragmatist vision of truth, which leaves deeply underdetermined what standrards lie buried within your appeal to the notion of “accuracy”, but it is a vision of truth. I would argue that something similar is involved in the appeal to the possibility of cross-disciplinary critique (and in the use of institutional analysis to grasp something historically) – but these are more complex critiques to make.

    One could respond to this in multiple ways, of course – you could back away even further from these sorts of tacit ideals… My personal preference, though, would be to try to make sense of the ideals – not to shy away from them, but to ground them. You’re right that this isn’t an obligation that falls individually on you – it’s not the kind of argumentative standard that needs to be met in one piece, or even in one career. But my hunch is that someone, somewhere would be able to make sense in a consistent way of the kinds of normative standards to which you tend to appeal – but that this task could be made more difficult if you shy away from acknowledging that such things underlie your approach… 😉 My impulse is to say that, if we feel the appeal of making such claims, we should try to make sense of the appeal, rather than recoiling from it… 😉

    But I did mean what I said, that these sorts of comments are very “meta” in relation to your explicit aims in the piece – which I did enjoy reading. And it’s good to know that the response might be useful in some practical way, as I was conscious that these comments float around at a fairly high level of abstraction… 😉

  4. Rich Puchalsky February 17, 2007 at 2:41 pm

    Scott’s critique, which takes place in relation to similar ones by Holbo (which in turn call on others) fall normatively on an attempt to call on the standards of academia in general and apply them to the particular subfield in question. “Hegelian seriousness” equates, at the most basic level, to the usual academic practise of taking ideas seriously and working out their implications carefully.

    So at one level, the normative basis is pretty strongly established. At another, it’s not. If a scientist, economist, or historian wanders into nowhereland, there eventually could be serious consequences. For literary studies, this isn’t true; as Scott says, there are no truth claims at stake.

    I tend to think that the surrounding institutional context is going to “win” out of inertia and the inevitable collision of a large group of people with a small one. I don’t think that argument as such really can overcome a determined commitment to incommensurability.

  5. N Pepperell February 17, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    I don’t think an argument can overcome someone’s determined commitment to ignore the force of that argument, either – what an argument can do is take away the rationality or the reasonableness of that decision to ignore its own force… Over time, and sometimes on people other than those to whom the argument is directly addressed, this can have a force. But I have to admit – and this purely on a personal level, and so it’s not a position I necessarily hold as itself rational or persuasive – I’d be drawn to attempting to make an adequate argument, even if I believed that argument would have no practical force, ever…

    In terms of Scott’s position evoking general academic norms – that’s fine, but this isn’t how the historicising “maneuver” (to use Scott’s term of choice… ;-P) works, when it comes to analysing historical objects of which it is critical. My point in drawing attention to the self-reflexive moments in some of Scott’s statements is to suggest that there’s a tacit ideal lurking about the place, which suggests the possibility for a more symmetrical form an analysis, one which takes seriously the notion that “history will happen to us all”, and asks what kind of analysis is implied by a statement of this sort.

    Scott can of course back away from the sorts of statements I picked up on – I’m very, very loathe to hold people to formulations that burst out in the course of an online debate, as often these sorts of statements will refer – quite validly – to a very specific argumentative context that won’t be expressed in the statement as such. So I’m not really trying to “ping” Scott for inconsistency or anything of that sort – he’s free to walk away from whatever statements he likes. My interest is seeing whether we can actually take these sorts of ideals seriously – and where it might take us if we do. And I’m doing this (among other reasons) because I suspect it might take us interesting places, in relation to some of the desires Scott has expressed for the potential for productive interdisciplinary critique.

  6. Rich Puchalsky February 17, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    N. Pepperell, I think that you’re underestimating the extent to which the response to this kind of push for interdisciplinary discussion is a principled rejection of a universal rationality or reasonableness. Jodi’s response to Holbo was, I think, somewhat more sweeping than I’ve seen people comment on; look at what she says about her refusal to decide on alien abduction or 9/11 truth in her capacity as investigator of those discourses. Of course I don’t agree with Jodi — I remember a previous instance in which physical gravitation also fell down the well of discoursive incommensurability — but I don’t see any way to answer this stance if it’s seriously held.

    With regard to the historicizing maneuver, I probably didn’t take Scott seriously enough in turn — I regarded it as an attempt to sneak in the general academic values that are part of historicism. I don’t know enough about historicism itself to judge whether Scott has really insufficiently historicized his own stance or not.

  7. N Pepperell February 17, 2007 at 3:47 pm

    There would be no way for you to know this, so your comment is fair enough, but I should perhaps clarify that I am both aware of, and take very seriously, that the main fault-line in the broader debate centres on a principled rejection of universal rationality. My work (when I’m actually doing it, which hasn’t been often, lately…) centres on this sort of thing – and, although I realise my post above may have sounded a bit flippant, I don’t underestimate the conviction or determination of folks committed to one horn or the other of the dichotomy over universal reason.

    My position – with due Hegelian seriousness and whatnot – is that, in order to salvage revised and reformulated normative standards in a form adequate to the critique of earlier understandings of universal reason, it will be necessary to displace the debate as a whole from the dichotomy into which it currently falls – which is a form of argument that (as my reading group regularly informs me… ;-P) rarely persuades anyone committed to any position that dichotomy outlines, so I’m unfortunately quite familiar with my ineffectualness of bringing about any practical impact… ;-P

    But I don’t want to burden this discussion with my specific apparatus (which, in any event, is not sufficiently worked out that I’d expect anyone to find it persuasive) – I’m just nodding agreement with your assessment that the situation is very complex. It’s just that, in the first instance, I’m focussed on thinking through the implications of core concepts and identifying the ideals to which we are, in fact, appealing in practice, rather than on the issue of how then to effect agreement with those ideals: among other things, I figure we might want to know first, what we want people to agree with…

    I also do think that failing to live up to our own (tacit or explicit) normative standards provides a very easy inroad for anyone who wants to take offence or to be dismissive – so there are some practical stakes, as well.

    But my main goal in this discussion is to take Scott seriously, and ask whether and how we might be able to live up to some of the ideals that seem to be motivating his approach. Then I’ll worry about how to make a case for the approach to anyone else.

  8. Joseph Kugelmass February 20, 2007 at 4:30 pm

    N. Pepperell,

    It isn’t clear to me what kind of historicization you would like to see from Scott. He does point out the internal divisions within historicism (from the “de rigeur” historicism of the average journal article, to the highly theoretical work of Stephen Greenblatt), and he argues that contemporary historicism is theoretically unsophisticated. His article suggests that historicism has been made worse by an academic environment in which it is the enemy of theory.

    Furthermore, Scott is very clear about the historical necessity of his argument: the walls separating different interpretative community have become so high that the quality of the work has diminished. He is arguing that the academy encourages an unusual sort of provincialism in its current form, which is a historical argument.

    Any further historicization would take one of three forms:

    1. Admitting to an arbitrary set of problems of his own (“As a historicist, I make the following errors…”). This would make him look worse without proving or disproving the rest of his essay.

    2. Detailing personal or institutionally specific reasons why he is interested in the problem of theoretical eclecticism. This might be interesting, but it (once again) wouldn’t bear on whether he was right.

    3. Admitting ignorance of what really happens inside theoretical circles, because he himself does not choose to belong to such circles.

    It should not be impossible for Scott to historicize himself precisely by arguing that clear thinking is the other of Bhabha’s eclecticism. In other words, that he is constituted as a perceiving subject “outside the circle” by the internal contradictions of the text, starting with the contradiction between the importance of Derrida’s work, and the cloying familiarity of calling that work “wit and wisdom.”

  9. N Pepperell February 20, 2007 at 10:31 pm

    Joe – Apologies for the delay on your post: the spam filter caught you for some reason, and I’ve been insanely busy today and wasn’t checking in.

    I won’t be able to respond adequately at the moment (again, apologies – my schedule is absolutely horrific right now), but on a quick pass, the three options you present above seem to suggest that historicisation could only ever be some kind of relativisation (with the implication that relativising a form of thought then is itself automatically a critique or a debunking); they also suggest that historicisation or relativisation of a position would always take the form of positioning the theorist/historian as an individual – talking about idiosyncratic factors that cause errors to creep into their personal perspectives, etc. In my experience, these two things – the concept of historicisation as debunking, and the individualisation of historicisation, tend to go together. And, from these starting points, it would then be unclear how historicisation could ever become a method of defending normative positions, rather than just dismissing them.

    Scott takes a couple of steps that suggest the possibility for a different conception of historicisation: first, of course, by invoking Hegel (although I realise Scott probably didn’t have this specific aspect of Hegel’s work in mind when he referred to “Hegelian seriousness” – but I’ll take my “ins” where I can find them… ;-P); second – and this is why I wandered over to the Long Sunday discussion, as this position doesn’t come across in any explicit way in the paper – in the self-reflexive moment in Scott’s assertion that “history will happen to all of us” (again, recognising that is probably not exactly what Scott was intending to do with this phrase, but trying still to take the phrase seriously, and to ask what it might mean to assert such a position rigorously).

    What most approaches do – and this is, in fact, an almost irresistable thing to – I do it myself, if I’m not being very, very conscious and careful – is they apply a different form of reasoning (what Scott would call a different “methodology”) when speaking about what they’re criticising, than when speaking about the values or ideals in the name of which the criticism is made. So, in your formulation above, you say:

    Scott is very clear about the historical necessity of his argument: the walls separating different interpretative community have become so high that the quality of the work has diminished. He is arguing that the academy encourages an unusual sort of provincialism in its current form, which is a historical argument.

    All well and good – but this is to historicise only half the equation. The very existence of a critical position like Scott’s – assuming the position resonates at all, and isn’t just a sign of, say, Scott’s personal psychosis ;-P – tells us that this cannot be the complete vision of the current historical moment: the moment must include, not only this kind of provincialism, but also the possibility for the emergence of a form of thought critical of that provincialism in a specific way. To argue that the provincialism should be explained via a specific method of historical analysis, while the forms of subjectivity critical of that provincialism should be treated as “clear thinking”, is to remove the theorist/historian from the frame – to position them above and outside the other, “historical” things they’re analysing – and thus, among other things, to violate the tacit ideal of self-reflexivity suggested in Scott’s Long Sunday comments.

    Scott can of course be a perceiving subject outside a text, or outside a given theoretical community – but, according to his own argument, he can’t be a perceiving subject outside history: there is some broader context within which history is, presumably, also happening to him. Analysing that context, and showing how it makes particular forms of critical subjectivity available to us at this point in time, would allow him to close the loop – and, among other things, deal with some of the sorts of critical reactions he was receiving in the Long Sunday discussion, where various people became annoyed that he seemed to be jugding their community from “on high”. I’m suggesting that there is a rational core to the Long Sunday critique – but not a core that Scott in principle couldn’t address, just a core he doesn’t happen to address in these particular exchanges.

    Often, people avoid this kind of self-reflexive historicisation because they make the kinds of tacit equations you’ve suggested above: treating historicisation as a form of critique, rather than the more Hegelian move of treating historicisation as a means of grounding forms of subjectivity (where grounding provides a potential for criticising, but also for defending, normative positions); and also assuming that historicisation has something to do with the individualising, relativising move – e.g., “I’m a white female middle class, etc” and am therefore biased in the following ways – rather than the more sociological move of viewing historicisation as being about intersubjectivity – about getting a grasp on forms of subjectivity that are collectively available at a particular point in time.

    Sorry that this has managed to be simultaneously quite long, and still quite compressed – I’d like to make a more adequate case for all these things, but hopefully this at least begins to gesture toward my intentions in responding to Scott in this way.

  10. Rich Puchalsky February 20, 2007 at 11:23 pm

    “the moment must include, not only this kind of provincialism, but also the possibility for the emergence of a form of thought critical of that provincialism in a specific way.”

    Sorry to repeat myself, but I think that the historical form which provides the normative basis for Scott’s critique consists of something like the contemporary values of academia outside of “theory”. In that sense, it’s a critique not from on high, but from on broad. One of those core values is that knowledge is assumed to hang together in some way such that the boundaries of your project that extend into another subject area have to make sense within the terms of that subject area. Thus the emphasis on “interdisciplinarity” in the argument, on ideas that make sense both within and outside of a narrow context.

    I think that the confusion with “clear thinking” comes about because these are more than just academic values — they appear to me to be general Enlightenment ones. There is a specific contemporary context in which these ideals are being defended against a form of irrationalism-in-power, often figured as a kind of provincialism; that’s why many of the classic anti-Theory people from outside literary studies and philosophy are now engaged with anti-Bush-administration public rhetoric, and assign their former anti-Theory rhetoric to the same continuum.

    This probably goes over ground that you’ve been over millions of times in your professional work, but since I’m not familiar with it, it seemed worth while to reiterate via comment box as well as I could.

  11. Joseph Kugelmass February 21, 2007 at 5:47 am


    This strikes me as a dynamite account of how historicizing oneself (or another author) can function in ways that aren’t necessary relativistic or personalizing. It would be very powerful to demonstrate that the feeling of “clear thinking” about eclecticism in Bhabha comes from the real, contemporary possibility of change.

    As you know, I’ve also written about the need for rhetorical efficacy in blogging, and something akin to reaching out to the other side in an online argument. Still, I wonder whether the responses at Long Sunday are capable of functioning as an effective critique of Scott’s work. Many of the principals (such as Jodi) did not respond to Scott’s later post quoting J. Hillis Miller, nor to my own attempt to build bridges on the question of “doing theory” over at the Valve.

    On one’s own site, perhaps even more so at a group site, there is a strong temptation to hold fast to positions, because it’s exciting for one’s sympathetic readers. Scott might have gestured towards a historical possibility of clear thinking open to all (e.g. also to people who work on Lacan), but I’m not sure he can get anywhere if his reader refuses his terms (again, “doing theory”). These terms may have been well-chosen nonetheless.

  12. N Pepperell February 21, 2007 at 7:21 am

    Rich – Your decision to frame your comment as a reiteration tempts me to make a reading group in-joke, but I’ll refrain… 😉 More seriously: I don’t think we’re actually disagreeing – I think that I’m trying to explore how one can refer to a context of more generally shared values (of the sorts implied by Scott’s appeal to “strong beliefs, weakly held”), in a rigorous way, which doesn’t give the appearance that you’ve broken out of the historical frame of the analysis. Scott shies away from this, suggesting, for example, in his reply to me that he is engaging in a kind of norm-free position because to invoke:

    dialectical pluralism is to argue against normative goals as a rule

    This kind of statement fails to acknowledge that, actually, this kind of position is a norm – that substantive judgments can flow from it about acceptable and unacceptable forms of engagement, etc. Your response, to me, sounds as though you agree with me that the concept of dialectical pluralism functions as a norm – and then you’re trying to explain where this norm comes from. But this is a step beyond where Scott explicitly goes – this is one of the things I’m referring to (although not the only one) when I suggest that Scott isn’t applying his analysis symmetrically or self-reflexively.

    The distinction you draw between narrow and broad contexts is also similar to points I was making in my original post. Again, though, in Scott’s explicit statements at Long Sunday, he invokes a somewhat different notion of context, one that suggests that historical context is reducible to institutional space – as in, for example, this opposition that Scott draws between immanence and institutional context:

    The alternative, in my experience, has been to fetishize immanence and make arguments about the relation of one body of thought to another as if they existed outside institutions, as if theoretical work transpired in a Platonic realm of Ivory Towers (to borrow from Jeff Williams). It doesn’t, and never has. Institutional forces have always existed, always deformed thought, and a proper institutional history accounts for both the interplay of ideas and the context in which that interplay took place.

    The implied notion that we must choose between some kind of purist concept of ideas bouncing off one another, on the one hand, and the ways in which ideas unfold in concrete institutions, on the other, actually doesn’t suit Scott’s argument (and I’ll stress that I don’t want to be too harsh here – I am, after all, drawing these quotations out of a blog fray…). Instead, Scott actually seems to rely, in other statements, on the notion of some other kind of context, in which those institutions are themselves embedded – otherwise, he would have difficulty explaining the kinds of overarching norms to which he appeals in other moments of his argument.

    My point was, basically, that he hasn’t unfolded a sufficiently supple concept of “context” to be able to explain why his norms aren’t leaps outside the historical frame in which he insists everyone else must reside. This is a point that was raised explicitly in the Long Sunday discussion, and it’s a criticism I think Scott can address – but, in order to do so, he’ll need first to become a bit less shy about admitting that he does actually invoke a normative standpoint and, second, think a bit more about how he conceptualises historical context.

    On one level, this argument can sound somewhat pedantic, but there are practical implications. First on the mundane level that you want, ideally, to have the best argument you can, when you go venturing abroad to have a theoretical debate. If your own position is asymmetrical, it’s a bit like shooting yourself in the foot before entering the fray: you’re trying to talk issues, while your interlocutors just keep pointing to the self-inflicted wound and demanding, “What are you going to do – bleed on me?!” So ideally you want to avoid engaging in a form of argument that hands someone a critique that applies immanently to your own approach…

    Moving outside of academic debates, I would suggest (and I can’t in any way support this kind of grand claim here, so feel free to dismiss away…) that asymmetric forms of critique aren’t pragmatically the best for movement politics, either, because they tend to suggest that movements haven’t understood the historical context in which they are operating – raising the risk that political goals will be backward-looking, fighting-the-last-war affairs, and increasing the risks that movements will be overtaken unawares by the unintended consequences of their own actions. But this is taking us quite far astray from anything Scott needs to worry about…

    Joe – Yes, exactly: my suggestion is that our own experience of critical forms of subjectivity – assuming that experience is shared and not purely individually idiosyncratic – becomes a piece of evidence whose significance is too often overlooked, pointing to potentials in the context. If we focus too heavily on the things we’re criticising, it can actually make the situation look far more pessimistic and one-dimensional than it needs to look – once we factor ourselves into the frame, as part of the context, then the context can be reconceptualised as including a number of trends with which we may be very unhappy – and our dissatisfaction with those trends, which, if we’re serious about historical immanence, then suggests that the context itself is a more complex space than one-sided critique (what Hegel would call “abstract negation”) admits…

    This is a slightly different issue – and here, I think, Sinthome has written far more, and far better, than I have – than how one then actually intervenes effectively in a debate unfolding on the ground. My sense is that this latter issue is far more context-bound, far more “local” – the sort of work I do can cast some light on the issue, but we move onto a terrain here where I tend to think that overarching sociological theory needs to be supplemented by something more psychological, rhetorical, etc.

    So, yes, you’re absolutely correct: what I’ve been doing here has been, in a sense, just trying to explore a set of issues internal to a particular approach – asking whether and how we can make sense of the implications of this approach in a consistent way, and where it leads us once we do this. This isn’t the same as unfolding rules of engagement in any specific discussion – it may help us get our own house in order, so to speak, but won’t tell us what to do once the guests arrive (or, as may have been more the case here, we crash their party… ;-P).

  13. Rich Puchalsky February 21, 2007 at 8:01 am

    That’s right, N.P., I don’t think that we’re disagreeing so much as I’m trying to push into particularities of where I see the normative basis coming from. Scott may, of course, disagree that there is such a thing as this normative basis, but I see it as a linkage between Scott’s essay and the other recent anti-Theoretical essays that I’ve read, and thus it can still exist even if Scott disavows it.

  14. rob March 14, 2007 at 3:52 pm

    Please excuse my strangerness, but, N Pepperell, I just have to thank you very much for a fabulous commentary.

    I really enjoyed your tangential (understood in the most flattering sense possible) intervention within Scott Eric Kaufman’s paper (which I also enjoyed), not least of all because I’ve found myself forced, by repeated encounters with genealogies of the critical disposition (e.g. by Ian Hunter, Barry Hindess and others), to reflect and write on the issues you’ve raised. Two comments, in particular — one from the original piece, the other from one of your last comments — resonate strongly in this regard:

    If we find that we can “see through” or gain some “outside” perspective on the limitations or distortions caused by particular institutions, then this perspective must also somehow be “inside” our historical context in some broader sense – suggesting that there is some position that is both historically embedded, and yet transcendent of particular institutional contexts.

    he’ll [indeed, we‘ll] need first to become a bit less shy about admitting that he does actually invoke a normative standpoint and, second, think a bit more about how he conceptualises historical context.

    These comments recall to my mind a whole series of texts which work in, on, and around this question. I have no idea whether you’re at all familiar with them, or would otherwise be sympathetic to them, but two in particular would enjoy acknowledgement. The first is Charles E. Scott’s The Question of Ethics: Nietzsche, Foucault, Heidegger, whose chapter on Foucault is especially relevant for the way that it reads the latter as undertaking precisely such a double historicisation (which Scott characterises as a “self-overcoming recoil”). The book’s also interesting, in this context, for the way that it sees the point (as it were) of such self-overcoming recoil to be the groping towards something like “a non–normative standpoint”.

    The second book is Derrida’s Grammatology, and especially the chapter on “Grammatology as a Positive Science”. That chapter ends with a passage that I think anticipates Joseph Kugelmass’ reference to a “real, contemporary possibility of change”. After listing a whole series of ways in which writing intersects with questions of institution, science, history and power, Derrida refers to a “common and radical possibility that no determined science, no abstract discipline, can think as such”. He goes on:

    The constitution of a science or philosophy of writing is a necessary and difficult task. But, a thought of the trace, of differance or reserves, having been arrived at these limits [of science, of philosophy, of “the closure of the epistémè“] and repeating them endlessly, must also point beyond the field of the epistémè…. [T]hought here is for me a perfectly neutral name, the blank part of the text [emphasis added], the necessarily indeterminate index of a future epoch of differance.

    Of course, the fact that “deconstruction” is so readily inscribed as a theory within the situation that Scott (if I may) describes simply underscores the difficulty of the task.

    Anyway, just wanted to say that I appreciate the work that’s taken place in this discussion. Apologies again for my (possibly unwelcome) intrusion.


  15. N Pepperell March 14, 2007 at 4:14 pm

    rob – not unwelcome in the slightest! Many thanks for both the comments and the pointers to other works (and apologies that you got caught in the moderation queue…) – please don’t hesitate to make other recommendations (although it’s a bit of a running joke to my friends, how many books I’m currently “in the middle” of – but this doesn’t cause me to appreciate recommendations any less…)

    I’m actually desperately trying to come up with a clearer, more useful vocabulary for talking about these things at the moment, so comments, suggestions for further reading and such are always of high value.

  16. rob March 15, 2007 at 11:48 am

    Thanks, N Pepperell, for the invitation to contribute.

    I don’t know how clear or useful what I may have to say or recommend would be, though, seeing as much of it will inevitably owe its logic to philosophers and philosophies that are regularly attacked for being “obscure”. Moreover, the relevance of any recommendations is undoubtedly dependent upon a whole network of intertexts, etc., that have informed my reading of your arguments, but to which you might not be privy.

    At any rate, much of what you’ve written here and in other posts (e.g. “Gesturing…” and “Immediate Reactions”) resonates so strongly with me because it is a much more direct statement than I was ever able to manage of a question or problem that I have spent a great deal of time thinking about (albeit, in a discontinuous fashion).

    So, at the risk of distracting you with potential irrelevancies, I’ll suggest one further book: Peggy Kamuf’s The Division of Literature, Or the University in Deconstruction. As a taste of what’s at stake in the book and as a test of its relevance to your concerns, allow me to quote an extended passage. The passage follows a critique of a proposal by Gerald Graff, in response to the “culture wars” in the US, to “teach the conflicts” over literature and theory:

    The principal reason Graff’s account cannot prevent this repetition of the error he diagnoses [i.e. believing in “the myth of consensus”] seems to lie in his conception of the institution — i.e., the university — as … a kind of umbrella. According to this conception, the university as institution is of purely functional design and its principal function is to define a space within which to disagree, among other things, about the meaning and importance of literature. By means of this notion of a neutral frmae that is not part of what it frames, Graff draws a limit around this conflictual space and designates, in effect, a point at which the conflict is neutralized, at which partisan discord dissolves into a common ground without division. His own discourse strives less to represent this point or ground … than to occupy it, to speak for or from that point while claiming that his is not just a position among others. Such a positionless position that comprehends all others is, of course, the ground that any discourse will strive to occupy in order to prevail over adversaries and impose itself, not as interpretation but as something like reason itself. But it may be that, if Graff’s recommendations sound reasonable, it is because they preserve a certain interpretation of the institution and the university as ground of consensus upon which division and dissent are merely staged as theatre. Such a theatre would contain and limit this division; it would put in place an effective barrier to division beyond a certain point of indivisibility. Which is to say that, as one might naturally expect, this interpretation seeks above all to preserve itself from conflict with a contrary notion, such as the one proposed here, according to which any apparent institutional “neutrality” results from the effacements of marks of division. (pp.18-9)

    The rest of the book presents “an attempt to glimpse how [the institutional] history [of literature] will have itself been inscribed within “literature” understood as a transformational relation to the future” (p.39).

    Consequently, there are two reasons why I make the connection from your work to Kamuf’s: first, despite the focus on literature, Kamuf’s book examines the university as a site in and by which certain intellectual norms (and hence divisions) are “instituted”, while seeking to reflect on the possibility of a transformational relation to the future. Second — and here my remarks need to be read as highly hesitant and tentative — I can’t help but wonder about the appeal to “intersubjectivity” you’ve sometimes been forced to make. I’ve seen this appeal made in a number of spaces over the last few years, and so I’m not necessarily questioning your formulation of that appeal, but I wonder about the extent to which such an appeal must function (regardless of the good intentions of those who thus appeal) as a kind of ground without division, and thus “results from the effacements of marks of division”. Of course, that’s not for a second to deny the urgency of thinking through what you have at other times called “a broader context”. But I wonder about the costs of configuring that context in the form of “intersubjectivity”.

    As I said, don’t take that last point as convicted criticism; I’m stammering here. The questions you raise here and elsewhere take me to the limits of thought and expression, and I am thus at a loss for words (not that one could tell, judging from the ramblings I’ve already produced).


  17. N Pepperell March 15, 2007 at 7:11 pm

    Sorry for the delay in responding – I’ve been in meetings all day, and then had a truly terrifying backlog of student emails once I finally returned to my computer (*shudder*).

    I think these issues take everyone to the limits of thought and expression (and I seem to write a lot when I’m at a loss for words, as well… ;-P).

    It’s interesting that you frame my use of the term “intersubjectivity” as a matter of my being “forced” – good call: I’ve actually been very hesitant about this term, but have been using it recently because it’s in common use in a number of… er… contexts in which I’ve been having theoretical discussions, and so it’s been a convenient shorthand. And it does have certain advantages, particularly in focussing attention away from the individual and foregrounding that we’re at least trying not to operate on the terrain of the subject-object divide. It also, though, carries the disadvantage you mention, of – at least by itself – making it difficult to thematise both any “structural” elements that might exist within a context, as well as fissures or incoherences within a context, etc. And some of the same issues can arise as do with the concept of “culture” – problems thematising historical change and such. (Sorry to be so gestural here – it’s been a long day, and so I’m not putting my most rigorous thought forward here… But yes: I do agree that there is a cost – and it’s therefore not an accident that I tend to reach for other terms – although I’m often not happy with those, either – when I’m developing lines of argument that hug more closely to my own theoretical work…)

    On obscurity: no need to worry, really 🙂 I may or may not have a working familiarity with the traditions that interest you, but I am very far from having any reflex negative reaction against obscure (or even, for that matter, obscurantist ;-P) authors…

  18. rob March 16, 2007 at 11:12 am

    Please: no need to apologise for any delay in responding (of which there was none) or for the gestural nature of your comments (how could they be otherwise?).

    I do want to say that I’m impressed with what I’ve been reading on this blog, and that I think I will (if you have no objections) stay awhile. Reading your exchange with Sinthome in the “Immediate Reactions” thread helped me realise why I like what I see: Hegel. I didn’t want to break into that exchange, but it struck me as interesting that Sinthome declared his/her allegiance (wrong word) to the Logic as though that marked a point of distinction from your own connections with Hegel. Hegel is, for me too, the Logic — or, to be more specific, the Science of Logic — and yet I’ve not found any reason to object to any of your substantive points in that topic. Indeed, my reading of the Science of Logic compels me to think similar thoughts.

    Let me say, too, that I love the reading of Marx in that thread. If you’ll excuse the horribly reductive and unjust observation, it’s Marx stumbling onto (Derrida’s) iterability or (Deleuze and Guattari’s) de- & re-territorialisation 150 years before their time.


  19. N Pepperell March 16, 2007 at 11:38 am

    Please do hang around – I value the feedback. I don’t know if you’ve seen them yet, but there are some writings floating around and about the blog on Hegel (the Phenomenology) – just very, very gestural and preliminary. I have several more planned, but my schedule overtook me before I could write them: they are my first priority, once I feel I’m on top of my teaching for the term (among other things, because I’m still trying to figure out how my thoughts on Phenomenology fit in, or don’t fit in, to the dissertation).

    If you’re reluctant to break into the other thread, but want to develop some of what you were thinking on Hegel, you’re welcome to lob comments into one of those older threads – aside from being interesting conversation, it would be helpful for me, in trying to get myself back into that thought-space. (Not that you have any obligation to help me clear my head 🙂 But just to encourage you to contribute thoughts on the subject if you fond yourself in the mood in the next few weeks.) There are a number of posts in this sequence, but the mains ones are on the lord-bondsman relationship and the Preface (you can see how much of a backlog I have, if I’m intending to write on the Phenomenology as a whole… ;-P)

    The reading of Marx is a sort of hybrid between things I’ve been scrambling around with, and a reading developed in Postone’s works. This is actually the first time I’ve tried writing publicly about this interpretation, so I’m still fumbling around with how to explain what I’m doing, and to communicate why it might be useful. I still need to develop a much clearer exposition of what I’m on about with this “real abstraction” jargon – and of why I think it might be useful, might provide a non-reductive way of thinking about the historicity of thought and practice, to think about what was articulated in the thread above in terms of the “notional content of practice”… Ugly term. Sometimes I think half my conceptual struggle relates to finding the right words – of course, that problem always itself points back to my not being clear yet in my own concepts…

  20. Sinthome March 17, 2007 at 3:51 pm

    Rob, that’s an excellent point with regard to the Logic and the Phenomenology. If everything must contain otherness within itself, then this would hold for the Logic as well, necessarily raising the sorts of historical concerns and issues of self-reflexivity that N.P. is raising. The Logic, of course, treats these issues of self-reflexivity, but insofar as it is timeless or all the categories are simultaneous, history is “outside” of it. The question then becomes one of thinking these two together, maintaining their difference, but also their reciprocal presupposition.

  21. rob March 19, 2007 at 11:29 am

    Hi Sinthome

    Thanks very much for your remarks.

    I feel I ought to respond: not because I have some counter-argument on some point, but rather because when it comes to Hegel I feel a bit of a fraud.

    The truth is, while I love Hegel and think he’s very important to come to terms with, my Hegel is, I suspect, quite idiosyncratic. When in the company of Hegelians, I can’t help but feel a little awkward and embarrassed, a bit out of place. Part of the reason for this is the fact that I’ve never finished the Phenomenology — I skipped the section on Religion (and probably a chunk out of Spirit, too!). In fact, the only of Hegel’s works that I read from cover to cover is the Logic from the Encyclopaedia. My Hegel is comprised of his Introductions and Prefaces, chunks of The Science of Logic and his Lectures on Aesthetics. So I know that my Hegel is missing something, and that were I to show him to real Hegelians I would rightly be the object of ridicule.

    The other part of the reason for my discomfort is that my Hegel derives from a deliberate attempt both to make sense of and to be faithful to the “ethics” of contemporary continental philosophy (esp. Derrida). Consequently, my Hegel is neither the clod-hopping sublimator nor well-grounded logician that he is sometimes taken for. My Hegel is, I’ll admit, very Derridean, which isn’t to say my Hegel’s not Hegel, but he’s not particularly consistent with Hegel, either. To that extent, he’s probably also not as idiosyncratic as I make out.

    In any case, I make my confession thus, because it’s precisely with regard to the question of “of thinking these two [i.e. the Phenomenology and the Logic] together, maintaining their difference, but also their reciprocal presupposition”, that I see Hegel stumbling, and necessarily so. About ten years ago I wrote a long (long, long; about 17,000 words long) paper on precisely this question, which for me arose in the following form: why does Hegel, in the Science of Logic, begin with an Introduction before the question of beginning (“Womit muß der Anfang der Wissenschaft gemacht werden?“)?

    It’s the sort of paper that is terribly disloyal to Hegel (in the sense that it reads particular passages against convention interpretations) and is characterised by a kind of parapractic paranthesism and a magisterial tone that, today, I am rather embarrassed about. But it’s actually the stumbling that the paper traces that I have in mind when I say that Hegel’s Science of Logic compels me to think similar thoughts as those that have been raised in this and other topics.

    So, to make the counter-point that I just said I had no desire to make, for me it’s precisely on account of the obstacle to that reciprocal presupposition that the question of history (though not only of history) breaks into the Logic. But it needs to be remembered that this counter-point comes from a self-confessed ignoramus.


  22. N Pepperell March 19, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    Now it’s my turn to be uncertain that I should intrude into the discussion – I won’t say much here, but just wanted to note that the sort of question around which you organised or developed your thoughts reminds me of something I might do – not to suggest that I would do anything comparable to your work – just that I tend to back into texts with questions like this… My impulse from what I’ve done with Phenomenology is to say that Hegel’s system may point to a framework he doesn’t quite provide for it – but I shouldn’t raise a point like this, as I’m exhausted today, and too far away from the text at the moment to be able to say anything useful… My tendency, though, has been to read Hegel’s categories as things that could only drop out of – and that therefore presuppose – a certain set of historical configurations – which isn’t the same as saying that his system requires embedding in the kind of causal analysis that, I’m (quite obtusely) only just beginning to realise seems to be what I’m heard to be talking about, when I mention the term “history”… But this will be too compressed – sorry – just writing notes to myself, really, on things I need to develop in greater and more explicit detail. Don’t mind me – carry on 🙂

    (And please don’t worry about being a “legitimate” Hegelian or whatnot – this is a scratchpad site for draft concepts – everything I post here is “fraudulent” in the sense you describe…)

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