Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Immediate Reactions

Sinthome at Larval Subjects has written a couple of responses to my recent post on real abstractions. My current response to the most recent is, I suspect, trapped in the same Akismet queue that seems also to be holding up some legitimate comments over here lately (incidentally, people should email me if they notice posts not getting through, as this will help me collect them from the spam bucket more quickly…). In the off chance that the post has disappeared entirely into the ether, I wanted to cross-post here – but, since this was written as a comment and therefore relies on the context to which it responds, you should really read Sinthome’s post first:

Just a quick note on my end, as well 🙂

Sense-perception jumped out at me in this passage for a different reason, I suspect, than it may have seemed: what interested me was that, in these couple of sentences, Deleuze and Guattari appear to assume that Marx’s point would have been to criticise notions of sense-perception, by arguing that sense perception needs to be placed back into a context of various mediations. I am contesting their reading of Marx, rather than making any arguments about what they themselves think – and I am doing this, not because I particularly care what Marx “really meant”, but because there are implications for how we understand the emergence of critical subjectivities.

What it seemed to me that this quotation might have missed (and, again, I don’t know the context, so I’m not making this as a strong claim, but just explaining what prompted me to write on the topic) is that, for Marx, the historical emergence of a form of subjectivity that could look at a product like wheat and see it as a product – as a thing, as an object potentially devoid of any particular intrinsic social determination essential to itself – is not a standpoint being criticised, but actually a dimension of Marx’s own standpoint of critique. I need to be careful here: Marx will try to historicise everything, so in that sense any form of subjectivity he discusses will be an object of critique in that he will attempt to historicise it. But he is not, I am suggesting, trying to criticise the notion of looking at an object, and seeing something potentially free of social determinations – he is not offering a critique of immediacy (in this sort of comment) from the standpoint of advocating a perspective that captures mediation more clearly. (Again: I need to be very cautious, because of course Marx does also focus on mediations – I am trying to draw attention to something very specific here.)

For Marx, the emergence of a form of subjectivity that can potentially see products as secular goods – as things that are not intrinsically bound together with some particular means of production – is actually integral to his attempt to establish that a transformation of the relations of production is possible. If this form of subjectivity were not widespread – if this notion weren’t intuitively plausible to people on a mass scale, then the task of transformation would be much more difficult, as it could look as though you could only advocate transforming the relationship of production, at the expense of the results of production – material wealth, mastery over nature, etc. (One can criticise Marx for valorising these things, but this issue is beyond the scope for this comment.)

So my reaction to the Deleuze and Guattari passage was that, to me, it seemed to be suggesting that Marx was saying something like: we really need to get past this form of immediacy that causes us to see wheat as a thing, and instead see it as, what it is, a product of a specific form of production – critical subjectivity consist in becoming more aware, more conscious, of the determinate processes that brought this particular object into being. Whereas I take Marx to be saying something more like: there are emancipatory potentials contained within the fact that we can look at this object – this wheat – and not associate it intrinsically with the specific processes that brought it into being. Because we can look on this product this way, we are open to the potential that its production might have taken a very different form. Now that we are open to this potential, we can reflect on what that different form ought to be. This might have been more difficult for us, if we saw the wheat as intrinsically embedded in some specific network of social relations.

Now of course, in the terms in which you were speaking in your original post, Marx is actually still very interested in mediation – and he does try to show how this specific kind of secular perception, this ability to perceive and experience objects as potentially devoid of social determinations, as not intrinsically socialised – as itself a product of a very specific social context. When he tries to analyse that context, he is of course offering an analysis of what you would term (as I would, as well) social mediations.

This is why my reaction focussed on these particular two sentences from Deleuze and Guattari (and were aimed at the reading of Marx, never at their theory in any broader sense) – and why I didn’t then focus on any other aspects of your post.

I would contest that this kind of analysis – understanding critical forms of subjectivity – is not pressing. I think there have been dire consequences for social movements that have resulted from not being sufficiently aware of the context they inhabit, and therefore engaging in practices whose consequences might have been easier to foresee, had a more adequate analysis been available to them. I see my work as working toward something that would be useful in this way. But perhaps I’m wrong. 😉

I worry a bit, though, that when we venture into this topic, you have several times pushed in this direction, as though I am somehow driving the discussion away from practical concerns, or raising questions that, for some reason, somehow intrinsically can’t be answered. It’s obviously up to you how you’d like to engage, but I am actually trying to answer such questions, believe they can be answered – at least to a better degree than they have been to date – and think these are questions worth worrying about, rather than shrugging off and dismissing. This doesn’t mean that such questions need to occupy everyone’s work – there is division of labour in theory as in other things. But I’ll contest the suggestion that the questions aren’t pressing. 😉

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12 responses to “Immediate Reactions

  1. Sinthome March 15, 2007 at 5:33 am

    I worry a bit, though, that when we venture into this topic, you have several times pushed in this direction, as though I am somehow driving the discussion away from practical concerns, or raising questions that, for some reason, somehow intrinsically can’t be answered. It’s obviously up to you how you’d like to engage, but I am actually trying to answer such questions, believe they can be answered – at least to a better degree than they have been to date – and think these are questions worth worrying about, rather than shrugging off and dismissing. This doesn’t mean that such questions need to occupy everyone’s work – there is division of labour in theory as in other things. But I’ll contest the suggestion that the questions aren’t pressing. 😉

    I’m not dismissing such a project or saying that it’s useless, just saying that it is not immediately my own. On a number of occasions when these discussions occur the question of the self-reflexive determination of the critical subject immediately emerges. As I see it, this turns the development of thought away from the direction it was moving in, which is why I spoke of obstructions and roadblocks. It interrupts a thought. An analogy could be drawn from mathematics. Suppose we have a mathematician working out some new branch of category theory and suddenly someone intervenes with all sorts of questions about her cognitive process. The mathematician here isn’t thinking about her cognitive process, but a certain structure of categories and might rightly be annoyed at having her thought process interreupted by another issue entirely.

  2. N Pepperell March 15, 2007 at 8:23 am

    I raise these issues because I actually do believe they are relevant – they may feel like distractions or disruptions, but I suspect that there are questions that you have expressed an interest in answering, political goals that you have expressed an interest in achieving, that you will actually not be able to answer or achieve, unless this kind of analysis has been done – by someone, if not by you. Particularly when I intervene in a public discussion, I’m not trying randomly to intrude with my own project, but to raise issues where, because of work I’ve done, I feel I can see potential problems looming if certain issues aren’t addressed. I take the points I am raising to be immanent to your concerns, even if I am not hitting on an effective way yet to show you why, or to explain how I might be able to cast light on some questions that seem, at least occasionally, to trouble you – if I didn’t believe this, I wouldn’t be raising them in our conversation.

    I don’t believe that you intend to be dismissive – you’ve committed a great deal of time and attention and energy to our conversation over many months now, and I trust your interest in an ongoing dialogue and friendship.

    However, in spite of what must be your intentions, it is dismissive on a rhetorical level to “shrug” at the most central dimension of a friend’s work, and to follow this with a sentence that suggests (and, again, I don’t believe you meant to do this, but the structure of what you wrote does it nevertheless) that this core focus might not represent a “healthy” attitude toward critique.

    This rhetorical strategy suggests to other readers – certainly given that we are having this discussion in a public space, where it will be read by people who have no interest in or knowledge of the broader context for this conversation – that you are making a much stronger point than I, knowing you at least a little bit better, take you to be making: it suggests that there is something conceptually problematic and politically counter-productive about the questions I am asking.

    If you do think this, of course, I’m certainly happy to debate it. But if – as you say in your first sentence here, and as I believe is actually the case – you are just trying to say that this line of questioning falls outside your immediate interests and the focus of your own research, there are ways of saying this that make much clearer and more visible to other readers that there is, in fact, not any kind of substantive critique lying behind your lack of interest in the topic. Trying to be a bit clearer on a rhetorical level, when engaged in a ongoing conversation with a friend in a public space, might be more considerate to your interlocutor. I say this, of course, realising that we are both busy, and blogs are spaces for rapid-fire discussion, and therefore posts will often contain unfortunate formulations whose implications were never intended.

    On more substantive issues: you tend to jump to analogies from the physical sciences and mathematics when I raise questions of self-reflexivity. Your examples tend to focus on an individual scientist or mathematician, and how disruptive it would be if they, as an individual, had to interrupt their work to think about such issues – you point out that they would never get anything done, etc.

    This analogy seems to me to hold, however, only when you visualise something like science as a practice in which individuals or project teams are engaged in isolation. When we take a step back, and think about something like science as a collective project, then we see that issues of self-reflexivity – of how to understand and manage the subjectivity of the researcher – have actually been quite integral to the collective project, and have been thought through and continue to be thought through at very high levels of rigour. The protocols of the scientific process – of academic work generally – expressed in principles of experimental design, concepts like controls, samples, peer review, etc. – the checks and balances of the research process – have emerged precisely through attempts to be more self-reflexive about the process of building scientific knowledge. They represent attempts to save that isolated scientist or mathematician from the worst consequences of the uninterrupted flow of their own thoughts – to introduce what, from one point of view, could be seen as deliberate inefficiencies into the process of thinking and research, in exchange for a higher level of trustworthiness of the outcomes of the research process as a whole.

    Many of these checks and balances address themselves precisely to thinking very systematically about what kinds of mistakes an individual researcher or research group is likely to fall prey to, and of asking what kinds of checks and balances we can put into place – precisely to interrupt the unreflexive course of thought, where that course might lead us to endpoints that actually contradict and undermine our collective goals for the scientific process.

    The work of an individual scholar or project team then unfolds within this framework – and individuals don’t have to worry about these issues as part of their day-to-day precisely because this kind of thinking has gone on, and continues to go on, somewhere else within the discipline. Along similar lines, I would take myself to be engaged in a process that, among other things, enables other people to adopt more of an “ordinary science” approach – rather than getting in the way of practice, I think this kind of theoretical reflection will facilitate it.

    On another level: you have mentioned on a number of occasions an attraction to rigorous, system-building theorists, and you clearly read and attend to the works of a number of theorists who spend a great deal of time trying to nail down and be clear about issues that, at first glance, can seem quite divorced from immediate political practice. You do this because, presumably, you understand that there is a value to the rigour – and because you can see the practical implications of at least certain forms of highly theoretical discussion.

    I take it that we are not just consumers of such rigorous theory – that we might also regard ourselves as producers of it. The sorts of questions I tend to ask are questions that would need to be answered for this kind of theory to be “adequate to its own notion” – for it to meet the standards it puts forth for others – for it to “practice what it preaches”. My project revolves around casting a more rigorous light on some of the standards or notions that other theorists seem to struggle most with grounding – I would hope this might be something I could perhaps contribute to the collective endeavour of critical theory.

    Although I would probably seek to do this simply because I do value rigour, I also happen to think that there are practical implications: that failures of rigour – not in the work of an individual theorist, but within a field of research as a collective endeavour – are actually useful, productive signs that our concepts are likely to be failing to grasp interesting potentials for practice. The search for rigour can be valuable as much for what it teaches us about what we don’t understand, about what remains unknown and falls outside the grasp of theoretical work, as for what it can help us grasp more clearly: you would know, of course, that a significant dimension of my work also relates to understanding more clearly the limits of this particular approach to theory…

    And finally: when structures of intersubjectivity are themselves at issue, I don’t believe there is any way to avoid thematising collective thought processes in our theoretical work. This may indeed feel like we are arresting our own individual thought process, as well, but I suspect this feeling is misplaced – both in the sense that the target of this kind of theoretical work is collective, not individual – that the aim is actually to help us become more collectively aware of our own potentials – and that, I suspect very strongly, we can only do this via a sort of reflexive arrest of the givenness and automatic flow of the thought into the paths it most readily sees and comfortably follows. Absent such a process, I fear that we risk falling into a path of least resistance, and thereby reproducing what, I take it, we hope to transform.

    None of this means that practice need tarry while theorists wrestle with these issues. Theory is simply the reflexive moment within practice: it is not some separate thing that gets in the way of action, but is rather itself an aspect of action. Theory is how action articulates and comes to understand itself and, therefore, its own potentials. You and I both share, I believe, a sense that this kind of articulation is itself something – that it has a material impact. It is also, I think, not something we actually can set aside: practice will have an articulation; it will possess a theoretical self-understanding – nothing will prevent this. The issue, then, is what that self-understanding will be, and how particular self-understandings open up potentials for new practice.

    I take it that we agree on this, so the issue then ought to become one of exploring how specific theoretical approaches sensitise practice to its own power. It is at this point that our conversation seems to break down in what, to me, feels like a one-sided way: I have been interested in exploring the implications of your approach; perhaps this interest is not reciprocal. This is a fair stance: time is scarce, and we all have made significant investments in our core theoretical traditions – it takes a great deal of work to move outside them at a deep enough level to gain something from the exchange. We all draw lines; we all have moments where we suspect that, beyond a certain point, there will be nothing but diminishing returns. You may well be at this point, with the sorts of questions that engage me and constitute my project.

    I take no offense at this, but would find it unfortunate: I suspect we have more to learn from one another, and I will certainly continue to learn from what you write. The question is whether you might also believe it is worthwhile to experiment a bit with the strange thought-space I occupy, to trust me at least enough to follow me a bit further along my theoretical path, to see whether I might be onto something, when I suddenly burst in with what I’m sure do look to be somewhat arcane theoretical arguments whose relevance may not be immediately clear.

    If not, we are essentially engaged in a discussion on the terrain you have already mapped out – I’m sure this will be very productive for me, as I have much to learn in these areas. I’m less sure it would be that productive for you, as we will be circling around issues on which you are likely already to know more than I ever will… But these are the sorts of issues that need to be negotiated again and again in any interdisciplinary discussion… And not necessarily once and for all in a single skirmish like this… Hopefully we’ll have other and better opportunities – and hopefully I will also stumble across some better ways of communicating how my approach might cast productive light on some of your recurrent concerns, so that the relevance of my interventions becomes more evident, and my comments aren’t as likely to strike you as distractions from what you are trying to think, but more – as I intend them – as efforts to develop and build on those lines of thought in productive ways.

  3. N Pepperell March 15, 2007 at 9:16 am

    Apologies for following a protracted comment with another, but I may have an analogy that might explain why I raise issues of self-reflexivity when you try to discuss the critical standards you want to apply when judging other forms of thought and practice, aside from the thought and practice of the theorist – although I’ll have to ask forbearance, as I’m stepping into territory with this analogy that I have absolutely no right or background to occupy. I am just reaching for some way to communicate the… non-randomness of my impulse to raise questions of self-reflexivity in our discussions.

    My sense from various things you’ve written on clinical practice is that, within a clinical context, you would be dubious of approaches that might claim that they could discuss diagnoses or symptoms, without discussing the therapeutic relationship – that you would be sceptical of “asymmetric” approaches that don’t thematise the relationship between the analyst and the analysand, but instead jump straight to some kind of diagnosis, as though it were possible to objectify a diagnosis and regard it as residing in the analysand, who would thus be constructed as a “patient”.

    I would suspect that you might also be a bit concerned if you were speaking to an analyst who, while accepting as an intellectual principle that analysis is an intersubjective process involving complex dynamics of transference and counter-transference, nevertheless continued speaking in more traditional diagnostic terms, and suggested, when you tried to turn the conversation back to issues of the analytic relationship, that this discussion, while certainly fine in principle and worth further study, was getting in the way of that diagnosis…

    Please don’t hear this analogy as more than it is: you know that I think you have a sophisticated and quite beautiful approach to critical theory, and have thought through the issues we discuss in great detail. In relation to this one specific issue, however, my reaction has some small similarities to how you might feel in the sort of situation I have described above: to me, you look as though you are trying to separate two things that I think cannot be separated – the thought process of the theorist is bound up in the context being analysed, to the degree that I don’t believe it makes sense to separate the analysis of the two, but rather believe this analysis must always proceed in tandem. If we don’t do this, it’s not just that I think we’re leaving something out that, for completeness, we should try to include: it’s that I think we’re distorting what we’re leaving in.

    So to me questions of self-reflexivity can never be interruptions within a discussion of the critical standards we apply: I simply don’t believe that we can adequately criticise problematic forms of thought and practice, unless we have also understood the potential for the subject-position of the critic – the study of what we would criticise is also and always and necessarily the study of the conditions of possibility of critique. The two things only make sense when thought together, such that it inevitably distorts our vision of one, when we try to think it without the other…

    You don’t have to agree with any of this – I’m happy to debate it. I’m just trying to get across that my conversational interventions are offered from within a theoretical framework that has serious hesitations about what will result, if certain problems aren’t conceptualised as intrinsically interconnected…

  4. Sinthome March 15, 2007 at 11:50 am

    Apologies for the hamhanded way in which I’ve expressed myself. I felt that you were reductive with regard to something I find very important and responded accordingly. Some of this is just difference in approaches. I very strongly believe in the development of notions in their own terms, whereas you have a tendency to evoke history and the social. My gut instinct is to see this as metaphysical, in the sense that one aspect of experience is made to trump the rest, whereas my background and mathematics and philosophy suggests to me that the immanent development of thought is possible without this reduction to history and the social. Ergo my critique of certain moments in Adorno. Examples of what I have in mind by immanent notional development would be Hegel’s logic, Plato’s Parmenides and Sophist, and just about any text in mathematics. It is along these lines that I believe in historical breaks that can’t be comprehended according to prior historical and social conditions. Apologies again for being so rough. Lots of stress and crankiness right now, though that’s no excuse.

  5. N Pepperell March 15, 2007 at 6:35 pm

    Roughness has nothing to do with it: you can be as ascerbic as you like, as long as it’s in the course of offering a substantive critique. What I object to are rhetorical moves that hint at critiques, where the critique has not yet been made: this leaves me in a position of not having anything I can actually respond to, and thus of shutting down discussion without my having a means of becoming clearer about how you are hearing my position, of how I might either be able to address your concerns or else acknowledge a problem in my own position. I’m not at all asking for you to hold back – quite the contrary: I’m asking for the courtesy of a substantive, rather than a rhetorical, critique.

    Your comments above that you are concerned about reductiveness in my position are substantive, tell me something about how you hear what I say, and give me something to think about and to work with. My impulse would be to respond that reductive approaches posit a kind of separation of thought and practice – history and notion – and therefore find themselves needing to cast about for which horn of this dichotomy is more “fundamental” in some way. I think that I see these things as far more interpenetrating than this – a position which therefore makes it a puzzle to me how history and notion might come to be perceived as distinct, and how a form of subjectivity might also arise that grasps their interpenetration.

    My position intersects in complex ways with concepts of the immanent development of notions. I am quite comfortable with Hegel in many respects, for example, but am quite uncomfortable with a more conventional “history of thought” line that might articulate its position in terms of the development of, say, intellectual history in the conventional sense. My discomfort with the “history of thought” line boils down to the suspicion that its concept of thought is far too narrow. My position is that there is a notional content to all forms of practice, which can go unrecognised because many approaches privilege the notions that pertain to only a very narrow slice of (generally academic or explicitly marked “cultural”) practice, and then privilege that slice. With an expansive enough understanding of what might have notional content, there may be little if any difference between your position and mine – this remains an issue to explore…

  6. Sinthome March 15, 2007 at 8:13 pm

    I took your comments about sensation to be a reductive way of reading the passage in question, that in turn reflected on Deleuze and Guattari and myself, regardless of whether you intended it to. By contrast, I read the passage as focusing less on sensation, and more on Marx implicitly advocating an ontology in which being is understood in terms of production or as production. For Deleuze and Guattari materialism means production in all its forms– for instance, the production of an oak tree from an acorn –which is part of the reason they’re interested in Marx. No doubt this impression of your reading is simply a misunderstanding on my part, though I found myself quite surprised to have the critical edifice I was laboriously constructing being reduced to a very vulgar variant of sense-data empiricism and process, and characterized in terms of critique as unmasking or debunking… Especially when I very seldom talk of unmasking or debunking, but tend to focus on what potentials to pull on in a given situation.

    My position intersects in complex ways with concepts of the immanent development of notions.

    What does this mean to you though? For me it resolutely does not refer to anything pertaining to history, but is something closer to what’s involved in solving a complex mathematical equation where something new is discovered that wasn’t there in the beginning. Or perhaps a better example would be a musical composition that unfolds according to its own logic. This is why, for me, Hegel is the Hegel of the Logic, not his historical writings, which often bring me to chuckle, or the Phenomenology. The interest of the Logic is the way in which conceptualities emerge out of other conceptualities like the way a crystal grows. Something similar takes place, I believe, in artistic practice, where the artist immanently discovers a certain logos in working through the material.

    In a number of respects the issue here is one between determination, or the dynamic internal properties of a thing, and constitution, or the way in which that thing is influenced by what is around it. Talk of history, I think, is seldom carried out well as it invariably privileges constitution over determination, swallowing the thing up in historical determinants and turning the thing itself into a sort of void or empty placeholder with no contribution of its own (I’m using “thing” here loosely, mathematics or a form of art can be a thing). If metaphysics, in the perjorative sense, consists in taking a part for the whole, history certainly becomes metaphysical in this sense. I think, for instance, that worrying over the historical setting in which differential calculus emerged is at best irrelevant, and at worst absurd (if conducted in the way Adorno talks about Jazz, where we say dy/dx represents the alienated bourgeois striving to express himself or something similar). This shifts the meaning of the differential from the differential. But the meaning of the differential is its own. The real task, in my view, is to unfold that new body in its implications and to thoroughly develop it in its potentials. Similarly in the case of a new form of art or a new form of philosophy or a new form of science or a new political movement. I’m speaking more categorically here than I intend, or less dialectically than I should. Clearly a good dialectical account would think the relation of determination and constitution. The problem is that with the possible exception of Foucault’s non-continuous notions of history, I haven’t seen this done which is why I react so strongly whenever it’s evoked. Invariably I see evocations of history as ways of disrespecting the thing itself in its own development for itself. When I evoke history myself it’s generally a mythological history, where I pull on resources from a tradition– say Lucretius or Diderot –that are absolutely contemporary for me as points of identification in what I’m trying to think through. That is, it’s a self-positing of influence rather than a conditioning.

    This brings me to a second point regarding history. One of the reasons I’m deeply suspicious about historical approaches is that they tend to emphasize continuity rather than breaks, thereby assimilating the emergence of something new to larger historical processes and dynamics. By contrast, I think that history is characterized by discontinuities and do not believe that everything can be explained on the basis of what came prior to that thing. Part of the reason here has to do with the immanence of things to themselves and the manner in which they develop themselves of their own accord in ways that can’t be captured by constitutional accounts. It’s entirely possible that I’m missing something here, but if so you’ll have to explain it more clearly to me.

    Finally, on the issue of the emergence of critical subjectivity I go back and forth. I have strong antipathy towards Kant– the thesis that we must first reflect on our faculties prior to engaging in metaphysics (taken in the non-pejorative sense) –for a variety of reasons. In part this is because it strikes me as a way of disengaging. Such moves strike me as very Kantian. This, for instance, is how a similar move has functioned in the work of Niklas Luhmann where we are enjoined to observe the observer. The problem is that this activity of observing the observer strikes me as divesting the observer of their observations. The observer of the observer trumps the observer by observing how they draw distinctions and pointing out that other distinctions are possible, thereby undermining the distinctions they do make… All the while, the observer of the observer gets to keep his hands clean, never resolutely taking up distinctions of his own and following through on their consequences, thereby occupying the position of the beautiful soul. Meanwhile history is made elsewhere by those who bear the contingency of their distinctions and act on them. On the other hand, Bourdieu, who champions a very similar dictum in works such as Pascalian Meditations and Homo Academicus, has shown how such a form of analysis can reveal systematic biases and illusions that distort the object of investigation. This comes out brilliantly in Homo Academicus where he shows how certain features of the academic’s socio-economic position lead to a distorted notion of practice. As a result, better practice becomes possible.

    In this connection I think you can do a better job explaining just why you think this question is so vital and how it relates to practice. At the risk of falling into another rhetorical faux pas, the artist is very little interested in his thought process– at least the ones I’ve known –but is concerned with the doing of his art. Or to put it more precisely, they’re not interested in their thought process in a Kantian sense of conditions for possibility, a priori or historical. Too much self-reflexivity can be detrimental to the doing of their activity. It could be that intentionality is structured in such a way that there must be a necessary point of opacity in order for it to function… This is partially what Lacan is getting at with objet a, where objet a is a blindspot necessarily at work in subjectivity, the tain of the mirror. With regard to political movements I believe that it is important to respect them in their self-description and self-understanding, focusing on the manner in which they develop their potentials which are inventive by nature. Once again, it could just be that I’m not understanding the nature of your question here. When you pitch it in terms of analysis it’s far clearer to me, as how the analyst conceives himself and his relation to his analysand makes a tremendous difference in how the cure is conceived and conducted. However, when you link this to history, I dig my heels in again, as the question here is one of a praxis and is centered on that praxis, and this rings in my ears as changing the topic of discussion. That is, it’s difficult for me to avoid the impression that these references to history aren’t delegitimating, at some level, the object they’re trying to account for. I know you’ve assured me that you don’t think that’s the case, but I find it extremely difficult to escape that impression whenever it is concretely evoked.

  7. N Pepperell March 15, 2007 at 10:42 pm

    Excellent – thank you for this. Hopefully this won’t be too disjoint, but I’ll interpose my comments between sections of your text, as I think there are a number of important threads here, and, as poorly as I’ll do justice to them in this form, I’ll at least make a slightly better gesture if I can take things in parts.

    I took your comments about sensation to be a reductive way of reading the passage in question, that in turn reflected on Deleuze and Guattari and myself, regardless of whether you intended it to. By contrast, I read the passage as focusing less on sensation, and more on Marx implicitly advocating an ontology in which being is understood in terms of production or as production. For Deleuze and Guattari materialism means production in all its forms– for instance, the production of an oak tree from an acorn –which is part of the reason they’re interested in Marx. No doubt this impression of your reading is simply a misunderstanding on my part, though I found myself quite surprised to have the critical edifice I was laboriously constructing being reduced to a very vulgar variant of sense-data empiricism and process, and characterized in terms of critique as unmasking or debunking… Especially when I very seldom talk of unmasking or debunking, but tend to focus on what potentials to pull on in a given situation.

    I was actually never making a comment about Deleuze and Guattari – let alone about your work. I’ve mentioned to you on a number of previous occasions that I have an idiosyncratic reading of Marx (not that this reading is unique to me at all, but it’s certainly not a conventional interpretation): basically, you ran into that reading here, so I’ll be coming from a position that may initially be a bit difficult to place. Try to bear with me, bracket what you already know about Marx, and let’s see if together we can make some sense of what I’ve been trying to say.

    It sounds from what you’ve been writing that I did actually read the Deleuze/Guattari passage correctly: try to stifle your reflex reaction to this comment for one moment, and listen to what I mean. I took their comment to be based on a common reading of Marx, where Marx is understood – as you’ve again described him above – as a theorist interested primarily in production. Deleuze and Guattari may then expand the notion of production in clever and interesting and theoretically useful ways – all of this is beside the point and not relevant for what interested me in the passage you quoted, and I’m not at all critical of them for riffing on this interpretation of Marx’s work.

    What interested me was that I actually think they’ve completely reversed what Marx is trying to do, when he draws our attention to the ways in which we become able to conceptualise material things as objects that are then analysed as intrinsically devoid of social determinations. Most readers of Marx take him to be pointing this out for precisely the same reasons that Deleuze and Guattari appear (in this passage) to believe Marx is pointing this out: they take him to be critical of the practice of viewing objects as devoid of social determinations – and so they take Marx’s normative stance – his critical standpoint – to be a critique of (false) immediacy, offered from the standpoint of mediation.

    Now, Marx cares a great deal about mediation – no question. And he will, in fact, analyse just this kind of materialist “immediacy” as a mediation – but I’m asking you to leave this aside for a moment, because focussing on this element of his analytical strategy at this point will confuse a more important issue that is usually overlooked. What I’m trying to draw attention to is that Marx thinks it is important – that it is an achievement – a Good Thing – to begin to view objects as potentially devoid of social determinations – as not intrinsically embedded in particular networks of concrete social relations and practices, as containing some “material” substratum, onto which social determinations are then overlaid. For Marx, it is actually this form of perceived immediacy that has critical potential, because it suggests the potential to break with established social relations. For Marx, this concept that there might be a world of objects – and a world of people – whose essential nature is not caught up in, and fully determined by, some concrete form of social relation, is a very basic determination of critical subjectivity.

    The Deleuze and Guattari passage caught my attention because it was inverting Marx’s argument (albeit inverting the argument in a way that is very common), by saying that Marx was, in effect, critical of the perception of the wheat-as-object, and wants us instead to conceptualise the wheat-as-embedded-in-concrete-social-relations. I think Marx is doing the opposite: saying that our ability to conceive the potential for the wheat just to be object, to conceptualise the contingency of concrete social relationships in relation to the wheat, contains the nucleus of an emancipatory ideal.

    It gets more complicated than this, of course, because Marx thinks that, in the form articulated by political economists, natural scientists, etc., concepts of materialism have become metaphysical – and so he actually will try to show how a certain kind of perceived immediacy (like that expressed in materialist concepts of the natural world) is itself actually a social mediation. But he doesn’t do this to debunk the form of subjectivity expressed in that perceived immediacy: he wants to retain those materialist insights, not unmask and overthrow them. He is trying to ground materialism – to explain why it is valid, in terms consistent with his theoretical approach. He is not suggesting that it would be better for us to conceptualise the wheat in terms of the concrete social relations that produced it and brought it into being – he is asking that we understand how fundamentally revolutionary it is, that we don’t automatically feel compelled to do so. A space has opened up here – a chance for an historical break. Marx is drawing our attention to that potential.

    The Deleuze and Guattari quotation suggests they read him (as most people do) as saying the opposite: that it is a bad thing that we can abstract from concrete social relations of production, and that a better standpoint would be to keep these relations in full view. Marx will, of course, get back to the core of what they mean: he also rejects as ideological the concept that materialism reflects a true vision of nature devoid of social determinations, and he will try to analyse what those social determinations are (and here I’m likely to disagree with Marx’s analysis, although I like elements of the way he sets up the problem). So my position was never that Deleuze and Guattari were unmaskers and debunkers, or were themselves engaging in a valorisation of sense-perception: quite the contrary. I was actually suggesting that they were taking Marx to be critical of a materialist vision of sense-perception, when I believe he was actually trying to ground such a position, so that he could justify incorporating this position into his own critical apparatus. In the process, Deleuze and Guattari inverted Marx’s standpoint of critique…

    My position intersects in complex ways with concepts of the immanent development of notions.

    What does this mean to you though? For me it resolutely does not refer to anything pertaining to history, but is something closer to what’s involved in solving a complex mathematical equation where something new is discovered that wasn’t there in the beginning. Or perhaps a better example would be a musical composition that unfolds according to its own logic. This is why, for me, Hegel is the Hegel of the Logic, not his historical writings, which often bring me to chuckle, or the Phenomenology. The interest of the Logic is the way in which conceptualities emerge out of other conceptualities like the way a crystal grows. Something similar takes place, I believe, in artistic practice, where the artist immanently discovers a certain logos in working through the material.

    Unfortunately – and I have to apologise for this – I’ll have to ask a question in turn here: what does it mean to say that the immanent development of notions “resolutely does not refer to anything pertaining to history”? You use the word “development”, so you obviously have a concept that something unfolds in time – “history” is in your analysis in at least this sense of things not always having been the same, of things changing over the course of time. So what are you then objecting to – what are you trying to exclude – when you say that you don’t want to incorporate anything pertaining to history in your analysis?

    In a number of respects the issue here is one between determination, or the dynamic internal properties of a thing, and constitution, or the way in which that thing is influenced by what is around it. Talk of history, I think, is seldom carried out well as it invariably privileges constitution over determination, swallowing the thing up in historical determinants and turning the thing itself into a sort of void or empty placeholder with no contribution of its own (I’m using “thing” here loosely, mathematics or a form of art can be a thing). If metaphysics, in the perjorative sense, consists in taking a part for the whole, history certainly becomes metaphysical in this sense. I think, for instance, that worrying over the historical setting in which differential calculus emerged is at best irrelevant, and at worst absurd (if conducted in the way Adorno talks about Jazz, where we say dy/dx represents the alienated bourgeois striving to express himself or something similar). This shifts the meaning of the differential from the differential. But the meaning of the differential is its own. The real task, in my view, is to unfold that new body in its implications and to thoroughly develop it in its potentials. Similarly in the case of a new form of art or a new form of philosophy or a new form of science or a new political movement. I’m speaking more categorically here than I intend, or less dialectically than I should. Clearly a good dialectical account would think the relation of determination and constitution. The problem is that with the possible exception of Foucault’s non-continuous notions of history, I haven’t seen this done which is why I react so strongly whenever it’s evoked. Invariably I see evocations of history as ways of disrespecting the thing itself in its own development for itself. When I evoke history myself it’s generally a mythological history, where I pull on resources from a tradition– say Lucretius or Diderot –that are absolutely contemporary for me as points of identification in what I’m trying to think through. That is, it’s a self-positing of influence rather than a conditioning.

    Try to respond to me, not to hordes of people who may have nothing to do with me 🙂 My relationship to the discipline of history was rocky at best – the problems that concern me were not regarded as “historical”, mainly because I’m primarily interested in understanding what things are, rather than in undertaking causal analyses. And I am fairly exclusively interested in historical breaks. So…

    Part of what some things are, however, are things that have unfolded in time. If something has unfolded in time – or if we believe it has unfolded in time – and our categories do not capture this temporal index, we haven’t grasped the thing – this is, to me, a form of disrespect, just as the causal reduction of a thing to, e.g., class interests, or social function, or whatever else is also a form of disrespect. Your observation about “the thing itself in its own development for itself” begs the question – here, I think, we’d need a specific “thing” to talk sensibly, as this kind of statement might involve cutting reality at some highly contentious joints – a “thing” has to be of a very specific kind, for it not to be disrespectful to treat it as though it has a development for itself in isolation from other “things”…

    In your example of the differential, for example, both positions you sketch sound problematic to me: of course it is reductive to say that differential calculus is “nothing more” than some class interest or social function or similar, but what on earth does it mean to say “the meaning of the differential is its own”??? (Sorry – I don’t mean to tease, but this seems at best an odd formulation, particularly if you’re worrying about metaphysical implications in other people’s approaches…)

    When I talk about concepts like “alienation”, part of what I’m getting at is that there is the potential to break something away from whatever aleatory (or, for that matter, structural) processes brought it into being, and do something else with it: if I didn’t think this were possible, I couldn’t actually conceptualise critique within an immanent framework… My position is not “deterministic”. My non-determinism, however, causes its own problems – among them, understanding the tendency for certain patterns of practice to be reproduced in and through what are otherwise quite dramatic historical transformations in the modern era. It’s actually fairly easy to address this question from within a deterministic approach – one of the things that complicates my theoretical work considerably is precisely that I don’t look on socialisation and history as proceeding in this kind of lockstep, causally deterministic form…

    This brings me to a second point regarding history. One of the reasons I’m deeply suspicious about historical approaches is that they tend to emphasize continuity rather than breaks, thereby assimilating the emergence of something new to larger historical processes and dynamics. By contrast, I think that history is characterized by discontinuities and do not believe that everything can be explained on the basis of what came prior to that thing. Part of the reason here has to do with the immanence of things to themselves and the manner in which they develop themselves of their own accord in ways that can’t be captured by constitutional accounts. It’s entirely possible that I’m missing something here, but if so you’ll have to explain it more clearly to me.

    I’m a critical theorist, not an historian or historicist: critical theory is nonsensical as a project if you are not interested in the potential for transformation, for a break with what is. I don’t personally think “history” is characterised by anything – whether continuity or discontinuity. I see no reason (or basis) to take strong, transcendental ontological positions on the issue. I will comment on the particular structures or patterns that appear to characterise modern history – and I might be happy to take a look at other times, and see whether I think something similar, or different, prevails. But I have no a priori position on what I might find.

    Again, general comments about “the immanence of things to themselves and the manner in which they develop themselves of their own accord” strike me as making quite strong, generalised ontological claims – claims that I might be willing to accept in some cases, and not in others – it depends on the “thing”.

    Finally, on the issue of the emergence of critical subjectivity I go back and forth. I have strong antipathy towards Kant– the thesis that we must first reflect on our faculties prior to engaging in metaphysics (taken in the non-pejorative sense) –for a variety of reasons. In part this is because it strikes me as a way of disengaging. Such moves strike me as very Kantian. This, for instance, is how a similar move has functioned in the work of Niklas Luhmann where we are enjoined to observe the observer. The problem is that this activity of observing the observer strikes me as divesting the observer of their observations. The observer of the observer trumps the observer by observing how they draw distinctions and pointing out that other distinctions are possible, thereby undermining the distinctions they do make… All the while, the observer of the observer gets to keep his hands clean, never resolutely taking up distinctions of his own and following through on their consequences, thereby occupying the position of the beautiful soul. Meanwhile history is made elsewhere by those who bear the contingency of their distinctions and act on them. On the other hand, Bourdieu, who champions a very similar dictum in works such as Pascalian Meditations and Homo Academicus, has shown how such a form of analysis can reveal systematic biases and illusions that distort the object of investigation. This comes out brilliantly in Homo Academicus where he shows how certain features of the academic’s socio-economic position lead to a distorted notion of practice. As a result, better practice becomes possible.

    In this connection I think you can do a better job explaining just why you think this question is so vital and how it relates to practice. At the risk of falling into another rhetorical faux pas, the artist is very little interested in his thought process– at least the ones I’ve known –but is concerned with the doing of his art. Or to put it more precisely, they’re not interested in their thought process in a Kantian sense of conditions for possibility, a priori or historical. Too much self-reflexivity can be detrimental to the doing of their activity. It could be that intentionality is structured in such a way that there must be a necessary point of opacity in order for it to function… This is partially what Lacan is getting at with objet a, where objet a is a blindspot necessarily at work in subjectivity, the tain of the mirror. With regard to political movements I believe that it is important to respect them in their self-description and self-understanding, focusing on the manner in which they develop their potentials which are inventive by nature. Once again, it could just be that I’m not understanding the nature of your question here. When you pitch it in terms of analysis it’s far clearer to me, as how the analyst conceives himself and his relation to his analysand makes a tremendous difference in how the cure is conceived and conducted. However, when you link this to history, I dig my heels in again, as the question here is one of a praxis and is centered on that praxis, and this rings in my ears as changing the topic of discussion. That is, it’s difficult for me to avoid the impression that these references to history aren’t delegitimating, at some level, the object they’re trying to account for. I know you’ve assured me that you don’t think that’s the case, but I find it extremely difficult to escape that impression whenever it is concretely evoked.

    My sense here is that you are individualising something I take to be important only on a collective level (even if I as an individual happen to spend a lot of my personal time on it ;-P). Theoretical self-reflexivity for me doesn’t have anything to do with anyone’s individual subjecitivity – once someone goes to the level of the individual, it generally means they’ve plonked themselves in the middle of a subject-object dualism, and they’ll never claw their way back out. So, among other things, I’m not talking about individuals needing to interrupt their political actions of the moment in order to pause, take a deep breath, and meditate on what they’re about to do… I don’t think the problem of divesting the observer of their observations applies.

    Theoretical self-reflexivity, for me, is a somewhat technical term that basically just tries to acknowledge and then deal in a rigorous way with the recognition that the theorist isn’t in any exceptional position in relation to the context they are analysing. Part of the drive to engage in this kind of work, of course, is simply consistency and trying to come up with a form of theory that is actually adequate to specific aspects of our moment. I do, though, think there are practical implications – among them, to assist social movements in not being blindsided by dimensions of their overarching context that they might not otherwise recognise are there (just to make a gestural and over-abstract example, I think many 1960s social movements were so focussed on a backward-looking critique of the technocratic state, that they were taken unawares by the parallel critique of that same state by movements with a very different political agenda: the inventiveness of particular movements was not, by itself, sufficient to equip them to navigate their context in a politically effective way…).

    In terms of the link back to analysis (and I’ll have to apologise here – I’m realising my discussion is getting more and more truncated and gestural – I’m very tired, and I’m happy to revisit this in a more adequate way, if this ends up not being useful): distortions of various sorts tend to creep in when the theorist exceptionalises themselves in relation to their analysis, and starts to treat society as an object. These distortions desensitise the theorist to potentials within the context (by causing the theorist not to perceive their own critical ideals as a sign of their own imbricatedness in a social context that vibrates with collectively-constituted emancipatory possibilities). This then generally pushes theory in a pessimistic direction, in which the theorist may “exhort” various ideals, but cannot conceptualise these ideals as existing in any concrete relationship with the wider context. Attempts to compensate for this problem by just asserting the potential for rupture, while understandable and in many senses commendable, tend to be quite abstract: again to the example of the 1960s movements – the simple sense that rupture was possible was “in the air”: social movements didn’t need a theorist to achieve this insight – other politically salient dimensions of the context, however, were much harder to see, and systematic theoretical reflection could have cast some meaningful light on such things…

    Apologies that I’ve addressed this final set of questions in particular quite poorly – I’m happy to come back to the issue, as you have time and interest. I’ve thought more, and am generally more coherent on the issue, than these passages suggest.

  8. Sinthome March 16, 2007 at 3:50 am

    In your example of the differential, for example, both positions you sketch sound problematic to me: of course it is reductive to say that differential calculus is “nothing more” than some class interest or social function or similar, but what on earth does it mean to say “the meaning of the differential is its own”??? (Sorry – I don’t mean to tease, but this seems at best an odd formulation, particularly if you’re worrying about metaphysical implications in other people’s approaches…)

    Poor expression perhaps, but I simply meant that mathematics unfolds through a series of theorems and problems that it sets for itself, not through social overdetermination. I truly feel that the temporal factors you cite are of little interest where this is concerned, which isn’t to dismiss it in other areas. This form of immanent development is often missed, I think, in your characterizations. Artistic movements often function in this way, as do political and scientific movements. There’s a way in which they close themselves off from their broader context and posit their own unfolding that can no longer be comprehended from the perspective of constitution. There is a dialectical relation here between determination and constitution, but I don’t feel that enough attention is being paid to determination in this discussion. Anyway, that’s all for now.

  9. Sinthome March 16, 2007 at 5:35 am

    One further point: The passage you keep insisting on interpreting without being familiar with the broader text or thinkers does not have a whole lot to do with Marx or much at all to do with what you’re talking about here. This is fine and I don’t disagree with the points you make about Marx, but my hackles raise when you attribute either a stance to Deleuze and Guattari or myself that has not been made. This puts me in an extremely difficult and vexing position of having to explain all this material to you– as you confess you haven’t read it –which is an impossible task without shared context in the material. Consequently, I confess that it comes across as extremely irritating when you write something like:

    It sounds from what you’ve been writing that I did actually read the Deleuze/Guattari passage correctly: try to stifle your reflex reaction to this comment for one moment, and listen to what I mean.

    No, it really doesn’t as the passage under discussion comes from a much broader section dealing with an entirely different issue. The title of the section from which it comes is entitled “A Materialist Psychiatry”. Deleuze and Guattari are there discussing the history of the concept of desire and how it has been understood in terms of lack. They contend that this conception of desire comes from treating desire in terms of its actualized expression, rather than examining the manner in which desire is productive at the sub-individual level. The reference to Marx is an offhand reference that is evoked because of Marx’s conception of productivity. Deleuze is an ontological thinker who conceives being– reflect, read carefully, because you keep jumping the gun to get back to the social when that’s not at all what I’m talking about —not social relations as productive, inventive and creative. Insofar as social relations are a subset of being they have these characteristics as well, but this is not the point. Deleuze and Guattari later have far more substantial things to say about Marx– that converge with what you’re saying above in a number of interesting ways –but what you’re attributing to them here is simply not what’s at issue.

    I understand the other points you’re making as you’ve made them to me three times now. That’s not the issue or what originally elicited my comments. Nor is there any disagreement with the thesis that yes, seeing things in terms of sensations can have liberatory potentials. Incidentally, Deleuze and Guattari argue in a nuanced and intricate way something very similar, though not directly with regard to sensation but much more broadly about potentials inhabiting any situation. Again, developing this point would require me to jump in and explain all that material, the concept of deterritorialization, their account of becoming and individuation and I just don’t have it in me, especially after being lectured on rhetoric and what does and does not constitute making a point, or after being told that I’m reducing questions of critical consciousness to the psychologistic perspective of the individual when I cite two theorists that pitch these questions in terms extremely close to what you’re talking about. Perhaps it’s just best to drop the references to Deleuze and Guattari and deal directly with the point you’re making about Marx and social relations. At any rate, I have nothing more to say in this discussion as discussion pretty much ends for me the moment it goes meta and I’m given a set of rules for how to express myself.

  10. N Pepperell March 16, 2007 at 9:41 am

    I’ve always assumed that the comment on Marx was nothing more than an offhand comment – I’ve never taken it as significant for any broader theoretical corpus, whether yours or Deleuze and Guattari’s: I am not trying to contest the notion that you, or Deleuze and Guattari, have ways of addressing all of the sorts of broader theoretical issues I raise. I’ve used this quotation for only a very narrow purpose: to respond to a particular style of reading Marx – which itself has little to do in any unique sense with Deleuze and Guattari, but is a fairly common way to understand Marx’s work and to perceive what he was exhorting us to do. I do understand that this issue must necessarily be tangential to your interests – for various reasons I haven’t succeeded in communicating, it is interesting in relation to some elements of my own work, and also in relation to some questions that have arisen in our discussion in terms of theoretical self-reflexivity, and how one goes about grounding a standpoint of critique. I apologise, as well, for the repetitiveness of my responses – I’ve just been trying to work out how to explain that my only focus has been on the reading of Marx, but have clearly only reinforced the initial perception that I am targeting some broader issue in Deleuze and Guattari’s work. If it helps: I’m not doing this, I don’t take the passage to be in any way central to Deleuze and Guattari’s work, I don’t think that pointing out how they read Marx is some kind of opening salvo in a broader critique, and I have never been trying to suggest that they lack ways of getting to exactly the same sort of positions I outline.

    I have instead been doing something quite small – perhaps so small that it seems (or simply is) insignificant, and thus causes a bit of casting about, to see what more significant thing I might have been trying to accomplish in addition. I have been saying only that these particular sentences suggest a common reading of how Marx gets to certain positions, that I have some issues with that common reading, and that Marx becomes a potentially more interesting and useful figure for contemporary critique if read in a different way.

    My concluding comments on individualisation were poorly-formed – I was very tired by the point I was writing, and apologise for the impression I gave, as though my comments were directed more broadly than I intended. I was replying solely to the question of whether a focus on self-reflexivity would deprive the observer of their observations: I perceive this as a dilemma only when we are thinking of individual observers. I may well be completely wrong about this. Regardless, I don’t take you in any general sense to be focussing on individuals, or to be using theorists who do so – you have always been clear on this, and you were certainly clear on this in the passage to which I was responding. I should have been clearer on my end that I was making a narrow point, and was leaving much of what you said in that section untouched because I was simply too tired to pick up on it at the time.

    The issue of immanent development is something we could discuss further, if you’re interested. I think we agree on reductive historical explanations. I tend to think – and you may or may not agree with this, I don’t know – that anything that arises in a time, reworks elements of that time into its own creative and inventive process, so there will be some kind of temporal trace.

    At the moment, I don’t presuppose as a general principle that things can or should be understood in terms of an internal logic of development – I could see this being an appropriate way of characterising certain things, but am agnostic on it as a more general point, but am open to the idea that there would be problems such an approach could resolve, that might not be resolvable with the looser and more ad hoc way that I tend currently to think about such things…

    I do apologise if I seemed to be dictating terms of discussion. My schedule is beyond insane at the moment, and so I am writing in rare interstices, and also in a context where I am engaged in a series of offline theoretical debates whose tone may be bleeding over inappropriately into how I’m writing (voice tone can clarify many things in person, but I am generally more careful when I write, knowing such additional information is not available). You are a much valued interlocutor, whose positions I respect deeply – and I am truly sorry if I have not been communicating the degree to which this is the case.

  11. tripeology March 16, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    I don’t see why you’re apologizing so profusely here, N Pepperell. With interlocutors like Sinthome, who needs enemies? It seems the fault is not in your logic, but perhaps located in some other misplaced energy?

  12. Sinthome March 17, 2007 at 4:39 am

    Tripeology has a point. My tone has been less than stellar or productive over the last few days. All I can do is rather lamely plead guilty for dealing lately with a tremendous amount of stress. Hopefully N.Pepperell will be forgiving as we’ve had an extremely productive working friendship over the last year, which is, no doubt, the reason she’s being more apologetic than she would normally be when confronted with such hysterical outbursts.

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