Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Ourglass

I mentioned the other day that L Magee and G Gollings foolishly allowed themselves to be tempted by a lunch invitation, little knowing that this would entrap them in a four-hour discussion of how I can best carve a thesis out of a life project. While this discussion was very much in the spirit of the methodology slam, those who know me well, also know that my extensive involvement in teaching and consulting on research methodology very much embodies the spirit “those who can’t do, teach” (those who are currently teaching jointly with me may then wonder where one goes when, as seems to be happening to me this term, one can’t necessarily teach either – I plead the 5th [I can do that in Australia, can’t I? ;-P])… When one’s work seems not to involve a methodology per se, and when the discussion therefore revolves more around the logic and coherence of the narrative presentation of the dissertation, I’m not sure one is permitted to say one has been slammed. Perhaps a new term is required: perhaps I have been… dissed!

In the wake of my dissing, I have tossed together some personal notes and placeholders – I’ll write on all of this in a much more adequate way when I have more time and am less tired. I post this here mainly for GG and LM (and others locally who have been involved in more truncated versions of such discussions), in case they are wondering what I’ve “done” with these talks. My guess is that what I’ve done with them won’t much resemble what one might have hoped, given the detail of our discussions and the excellent suggestions made by everyone: by way of apology, I simply haven’t had time to digest and assimilate everything you’ve said. I’ll therefore stress that the following notes are not intended for prime time viewing, don’t even meet the usual loose standards that govern gestural comments around these parts, and are internalistic, rather than shaped for public discussion and debate. Below the fold they go.

First to express my immense gratitude to LM and GG: the discussion on Wednesday was more helpful that I can possibly indicate, in spite of the rather lame use I’m making of that discussion in the materials below. This of course means that I will be bothering both of you again, and likely anyone else who comes within earshot, as I try to slice my way through the fog generated by rotating some very large questions around in my head for much too long without an opportunity to communicate the core concepts to others. I’m in a strange situation at the moment, in the sense that I hadn’t actually expected to be writing systematically on any of these issues now – I had been bracketing the more theoretical dimensions of my interests for after the PhD. For various reasons – a shift in disciplinary “home”, local reactions to some of the theoretical materials I’ve tossed up on the blog, and other contigent issues – support has recently coalesced around my using the thesis to put forward a more systematic theoretical argument, differentiated from the ethnographic work I’ve been doing (which continues, and which will be published in other forms, but which was never designed to allow me to comment on the sorts of very abstract theoretical issues I often discuss on the blog and in other writing).

This leaves me in the strange situation of suddenly being on much more familiar terrain with the thesis – and of shifting from what had been a process of trying to generate a mass of new writing, to the very different task of reorganising a mass of material that has already been written, but not at all with this purpose in mind. It’s a bit like having an argument in search of its opponent… I need to find a red thread that will allow me to isolate out a few theoretical moments from what I conceptualise as a much broader constellation, explain to a reader why these moments might be interesting and significant, and explore at least a few theoretical and practical implications of the approach in some detail – while bracketing a very wide range of other issues that are also integral, but which cannot all be explored adequately in one brief piece.

This is the mess into which GG and LM landed the other day. And, of course, since my problem at the moment is that I haven’t identified a useful path into an argument, and this is where I was seeking help, I decided that they really needed to listen to me attempt to explain the entire theoretical approach – at least, as much of it as I could recount in four hours, with nothing at my disposal but a spiral notebook and a single pen – themselves passed back and forth between L Magee and myself throughout the discussion: LM: *sketches boxes and arrows* – do you mean this? Me: No – *grabs pen and sketches a few more categories and arrows* – more like this… GG came through the process reassuring me that I do have a thesis, even if I don’t feel much like I do at the moment. LM didn’t so much disagree with GG’s silver lining, as draw attention to the clouds looming around it – ending our discussion by describing all the friendships Derrida managed to destroy through his writings, and warning me that a similar fate would no doubt be in my future, if I persist with what we had been discussing… What can I possibly say to such concerns, except: amicus LM, sed magis amica veritas

Okay… How to continue the process of backing into my questions… Autobiographically, the oldest layer of my project derives from an early intense interest in the sciences – as this interest then came to be refracted and reinterpreted in response to my shock at the early waves of religious revival and the contestation over scientific forms of knowledge that erupted in my bits of the southern US in the 1970s. The experience of religious revival had a strange impact on how I thought about science – breaking down an earlier (and very tacit – I wouldn’t have been aware I was thinking this way, until I came to reflect on the issue in response to these experiences) linear notion of history, bringing to my attention certain asymmetries or inconsistencies in the self-understanding of the sciences, and raising a series of questions related to how to justify materialist or secular normative ideals without clandestinely smuggling in assumptions and concepts that themselves fall outside of a secular frame.

These questions have continued to percolate in the background, structuring the sorts of questions I posed, first to philosophical texts and then, much later when I finally made my way to university, to critical theory. My current interest in topics like self-reflexivity and immanence derives reasonably directly from these earliest questions – which is not at all to suggest that the intellectual path I’ve followed to reach this point has been in any way direct or clear to me as I’ve followed it through – only that, looking back over what I’ve thought and researched, these same questions and issues have continued to reassert themselves, whatever detours I may have taken, and whatever topics I might have regarded myself to be working on at the time. I still see myself as struggling with the question of how to express how secular theoretical frameworks can be adequate to their own notion, without lapsing back into relativism and losing their ability to defend their own normative ideals. How this might translate into an organising framework for something like a thesis, I’m not currently certain (probably not a good thing to admit publicly but, as I’ve indicated, I wasn’t actually expecting to be writing on this right now – and had, in fact, been trying to make myself not write on the issue, as I was trying not to distract myself from more empirical work). But this is one touchstone around which my thinking seems to revolve.

The other touchstones that I’m currently aware of (elements of the project fall in and out of focus at various times – even I find it difficult to keep track of all the strands I’ve identified at various points; who knows what sense other people can make of any of this…) have to do with a specific strategy of attack for rendering a secular theoretical framework adequate to its notion. I run into difficulties here – mainly because it is very difficult for me to express what I’m trying to say, in a way that it doesn’t sound as though I’m trying to say something else, something much more common, and which everyone already knows. It’s extremely common for me to start explaining what I’m interested in, and then to confront a kind of bored irritation – a sort of “yes yes yes, everyone already knows this”, and an impatience for me to move on and get to my real point, to stop lecturing people as though they don’t know the first thing about the social sciences or philosophy.

I suspect, when I get this reaction, that I’m not successfully communicating what I’m trying to say – I suspect this because, very occasionally, I have managed to get across something close to the point I am trying to make, and the reaction is dramatically different: not bored impatience, but generally something more along the lines of LM’s “this is really gonna piss everyone off”… Not that I expect what I’m trying to say is actually all that controversial or worth some dramatic response – it’s just that what I look for, when trying to register whether someone has “gotten” the argument, is some sign of reaction to the sudden snapping into view of something that generally functions as a structure of perception – some indication that my interlocutor is now suddenly looking at something that we much more normally take for granted, and therefore look through. My sense is that it is actually quite difficult to keep this structure of perception in view – difficult enough that what I’m saying should not actually strike very many people as something they already know to the point of regarding it as obvious and trivial. At least, I don’t think it should strike people this way – but perhaps that’s my personal wishful delusion, and I’m in some strange minority of people who find such issues very difficult to conceptualise… Although, if this is the case, I would expect that certain questions would be formulated in slightly different ways, that certain answers or strategies for obtaining answers would appear more intuitive, in a more general sense, than they appear to be…

So I’m operating on the working assumption that I haven’t figured out a good way “in”, a good way to communicate that I am not actually trying to talk about what people think they know, but to explore how it is that they can know these things – and that I am engaging in this discussion, not in order to debunk, or to express scepticism, about what is known – although I will, at a later stage in the argument, discuss how the approach grounds normative judgments, but this is a matter of determinate judgment within an immanent framework, rather than of abstract negation or scepticism – but instead with the goal of bringing a certain structure of perception into view, because I regard this as a necessary first step for making sense of what our present moment is and understanding that moment’s immanent potentials. This is one of the core presentational and conceptual challenges if I seriously intend to discuss this theoretical problematic in the thesis. And so far we’re just talking about the most abstract strategic intentions of the form of the argument, rather than saying anything at all substantive about what that argument might entail…

I’ve been dancing for some time on the blog around the issue of what sort of structure of perception I’m trying to capture – writing posts about the substantive content of “nothing” and about determinate vs. abstract negations. What I’m trying to understand with all of this is our intuitive notion of what it would mean for something to be free of social determinations. There is of course a great deal of debate over whether it is possible “in reality” for something to be free of social determinations – and of what it might mean for our ability to defend normative judgments if this is, or is not, possible. One difficulty I experience is writing about my own questions in a way that makes clear that I am not intervening in such debates. My questions are, in a sense, prior: I’m trying to tease out the substantive content of what presents itself as an absence, to grasp the qualitative determinateness of what understands itself to be the pure negative that results when everything social has been stripped away. And I’m trying to do this in a non-reductive way – I’m not interested, for example, in what social “interests” or “functions” might be served in this or that setting, by the assertion of some particular vision of asocial “objective” truth – I’m not interested in unmasking what some specific deployment of a concept of objectivity might veil. My question is more basic – and is concerned with understanding and grasping, rather than discrediting, what we mean, what we think, what we fantasise, when we intuit what would result if all social determinations could be stripped away – what it is, exactly, that comes to mind, when we think of “nature”, conceptualised as a secular space that contains what we visualise would remain behind if we could strip away all arbitrary cultural and social accretions.

Having tried to get a sense of this concept of asocial objectivity as a structure of (collective) subjectivity, the next move would involve trying to understand what this structure is – and here, perhaps, the argument does get a bit conceptually tricky, as several issues have to be suspended in thought at the same time in order to understand the shape of the underlying problem. My approach is motivated, on the one hand, by the notion that this structure has emerged in historical time – the mass or popular intuitiveness of a concept of a secular, asocial environment is not something that our own time regards as a transhistorically general form of subjectivity. So this form of perception presents itself to us, to our awareness, as something historically emergent – even though from another perspective it also understands itself as pointing to something timeless and asocial. If we want to grasp this form of subjectivity – if we want to understand what it is – this tension between historical and ahistorical moments in its self-understanding is part of what we need to grasp.

On the other hand, my approach is motivated by the notion – discussed a number of times on this blog, but also in the recent discussion of Hegel over at Larval Subjects – that things appear as what they are. This notion pushes the analysis off the terrain of debating whether some kind of timeless and asocial objectivity exists in some abstract sense, and onto the terrain of asking what aspect of – what perspective within – our current moment enacts the set of characteristics that we experience as our model for asocial environments (note that my formulation is profoundly inadequate here, as there are nested sets of questions that must be answered, but I’ll leave it at this for the moment…). Undertaking this kind of analysis, I believe, makes it possible to ground – and to criticise, in a determinate way – the form of collective subjectivity being analysed… But this form of critical grounding or determinate negation requires closing the loop and making this analysis consistently immanent and self-reflexive by examining other perspectives within the constellation that bring other forms of collective subjectivity into view… And then exploring what it means to make normative judgments within this kind of framework… I think I’ll just go curl up in a ball now…

Apologies to anyone who has actually tried to read this (and particular apologies to GG and LM, who sat through such a lengthy discussion of these issues on Wednesday, if they have trawled through to the bottom of this piece, which is probably even less satisfying than our in-person discussion…).

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