Sinthome from Larval Subjects has this annoyingly productive knack for writing things that won’t leave my thoughts, that provoke me to cast back on unresolved problems that are quite central in my own work – destabilising and reactivating those problems once again, and thus prompting me to write responses even when I have other commitments to meet. (If anyone needs to know how to reach me during this interlude while I’m dead, you all know whom to ask… ;-P) Sinthome’s recent writings on, for want of a better term, the phenomenology of stupidity have been nagging away, teasing me with a constellation of concepts I can’t quite bring into focus, but which have something to do with the theoretical standards of immanence and self-reflexivity, the need to historicise this kind of analysis, and the concept of a real abstraction. Since I can’t grasp the constellation (I gather from a recent discussion over at Acephalous that I’m not alone in this…), I thought I’d tug at one of the threads – that connected to the concept of a real abstraction – and see what thoughts I could begin to shake loose as a result.
In the recent post “Immediacy, Mediation, and Stupidity”, Sinthome develops an earlier set of reflections that seek to understand something about the emergence of critical forms of subjectivity, by exploring what it means to judge a form of subjectivity as being in error, once we have committed to an immanent and self-reflexive theoretical framework. I won’t here go into detail about why an immanent and self-reflexive framework transforms the terms in which one analyses error – Sinthome touches on the issue in the posts cited above, and this issue has been discussed a number of times in the conversation that has criss-crossed these blogs over the past several months. I will note that Sinthome’s main focus in these posts is categorial, rather than causal (although causal questions also figure): Sinthome is asking how we can grasp or understand what would constitute error (and, therefore, how we can grasp or understand the normative ideals in the name of which we would make such judgments), when we no longer have recourse to the option of appealing to an outside standpoint from which thought can look down from the lofty heights of some transcendent reality. How can thought that remains necessarily embedded in the context it seeks to criticise, understand and justify the possibility for its own critique?
In the current post, Sinthome suggests that an answer for this question might lie in the distinction between forms of thought that focus on the immediate, and forms of thought that seek to bring mediations to light. Sinthome equates the focus on the immediate with abstract thought, defined as thought that confuses a part for the whole. Dialectical thought, by contrast, seeks to undermine such abstractions by resituating perception such that the concrete network of mediations comes more clearly into view. Sinthome illustrates this issue by quoting the following passage from Delueze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus:
Let us remember once again one of Marx’s caveats: we cannot tell from the mere taste of wheat who grew it; the product gives us no hint as to the system and the relations of production. The product appears to be all the more specific, incredibly specific and readily describable, the more closely the theoretician relates it to ideal forms of causation, comprehension, or expression, rather than to the real process of production on which it depends. (AO, 24)
When I was reading Sinthome’s post, this quote jarred me and threw me out of the text. The thought “real abstraction!” flashed into my head, and I’ve been trying ever since to disentangle the significance of that association. What I’d like to do here is see if I can tease out some of the thoughts underlying my reaction – with the strong caveat that what I’m writing here is a reflection on this quotation alone – I don’t have the background to comment on Deleuze and Guattari’s work in any broader sense. So I’ll ask some forbearance here, as my intention is not to comment on what these authors might think in some general sense, but simply to explore a few of the implications of this specific passage, to see where they might lead.
I think the reason for my sort of lightening flash reaction to the text is that – again, solely in terms of the internal logic of this small collection of sentences – the problem of immediacy is here posed as a problem of how sense perception is inadequate or works to confuse us: the taste of the wheat gives us no clues; if we attend only to the evidence of our senses, then, it is plausible – if also criticisable – that we should not stumble across the various social mediations that have led to the production of this wheat, have carried it to our tables, have caused us to perceive it as something to be used for food rather than for some other purpose, etc. Tacitly, the properly critical perspective here lies in focussing our attention, not on the abstracted physical properties of the thing that we are consuming, but on the complex network of social relationships that has enabled this sense perception to take place. Marx is cited unproblematically as the inspiration for this insight.
I can hardly question that Marx sought to draw our vision to social relations. I’ve often felt, however, that common readings of Marx – including the one suggested in these sentences – turn him into far more of an unmasking-and-debunking theorist than I read him to be, and thus fail to capture the ways in which his theory attempts to embrace and seize, rather than unmask and reject, forms of subjectivity that he regarded as generated by capitalism, but in alienated form. As an unmasking-and-debunking theorist, Marx might have sought to do no more than draw our attention to the (unjust) social relations that underlay the production of goods then laundered by the market. As a critical theorist concerned with appropriating Hegel in materialist guise, however, Marx might be interested in something else entirely – without, of course, losing sight of the injustice he also wanted to criticise.
A critical theoretic approach would require that Marx ground his own critical standpoint – that he account for the forms of critical subjectivity manifest in his own critique – using the same categories and the same analytical strategies he directs at the society he criticises. We would presumably agree that Marx understood himself to be presenting a materialist theory – and that materialism functions as a normative ideal within his approach, as a standard against which Marx criticises the mystifications underlying other approaches. Yet what could be more “materialist” than this perception of wheat in terms of its immediate physical properties – this image of objects shorn of their embeddedness in social relationships and moral valences, open for examination by our senses, either directly or as amplified by technology? This issue becomes confused by the more recent flattening of the concept of “materialism” as though it pertains to something specifically economic – and therefore somehow should naturally direct our thoughts to social relations of production. In Marx, I would suggest, the concept still carries both a mixture of this later meaning, and its earlier sense of “secular” and “scientific” thinking – and would thus be somewhat aligned with the tendency to explore the “material” world, understood as a “demystified” and “rationalised” world, shorn of anthropomorphic projections.
Marx’s materialism suggests that things might not be as simple as Deleuze and Guattari imply. If Marx were to point to an object like wheat, and note that social relations cannot be deduced from it, perhaps there is a more complex sense in which such an observation might figure in Marx’s work: perhaps he might also be asking how he can justify the use of “materialist” concepts, within his own self-reflexive and immanent approach. Perhaps he might be seeking to meet the criteria of self-reflexivity (and of immanence or materialism itself) by posing the problem of how it came to pass that we exist in a society that can perceive and think in materialist terms, a society for which notions like sense perception might be appear to be the most basic, the most “natural”, way of perceiving the world – a society whose inhabitants can observe wheat and not immediately think things like: “Yes of course: I recognise this substance: it may only be lawfully consumed by persons of this caste, when prepared in this way, and at this time. It may only be produced by persons of that sort, using these traditional techniques, and with the proper ritual performances.”
I am suggesting, in other words, that Deleuze and Guattari might be here confusing a problem Marx was attempting to solve, with a debunking statement about an illusion that they position Marx as trying to move past. Ironically, at least in the few sentences quoted above, Deleuze and Guattari may even themselves be participating in the phenomenon Marx is trying to problematise and make available to investigation: they appear to take for granted that sense perception should be a form of immediacy, and therefore carries an inherent risk of obscuring the potential to perceive more mediated forms. Marx, I am suggesting, is more interested in a prior question: how does something like sense perception, or the notion of objects shorn from their embeddedness in a network of social relations – in other words, the constellation of concepts we association with “materialism” – ever come to be experienced as “immediate” in the first place?
What Marx is directly critical of, I would suggest, is not the fact that we should perceive the world in materialist terms – he takes materialism as one of the standpoints of his critique, and presumably believes that this form of subjectivity, which arose in alienated form under capitalism, is one of those forms of subjectivity worth preserving and translating into a more emancipated society. He is, however, critical of the tendency in political economy, the natural sciences, and other fields to take materialism for granted – to act as though “there used to be history, but there no longer is any” – to understand materialist forms of perception and thought in terms of a “stripping away” of social relations from some underlying “nature”.
The self-reflexivity of Marx’s approach won’t allow him to posit his own normative ideals as somehow natural or immediately given, while he treats other forms of thought as artificial social constructs. Instead, he must somehow try to understand how his own ideals are also socially constructed – and, in his work, he time and again comments on the special historical irony of a society whose own unique form of social construction should take on the appearance of being nothing more than pure biological or organimistic reality, stripped of all contingent and artificial social determinations. For Marx, this poses a unique historical puzzle of why the determinate form of social mediation in our society should necessarily cloak itself in the appearance of this particular kind of immediacy – of why our specific and unique “social” should generate a self-perception that articulates its (unrecognised) sociality in terms of categories like immediate sense perception. This, I would suggest, is the problem Marx is trying to solve – and not simply so that he can criticise the political economists for not paying history its due, but so that he can ground his own standpoint of critique.
I suspect Marx’s solution to this puzzle is not quite mine – and, in any event, I have articulated this response in terms of Marx’s work more because he was already haunting the Deleuze and Guattari quotation, rather than because we owe any special obeisance to his critical theory. Nevertheless, I would suggest that Marx does pose the problem particularly well, and – very gesturally here – that I suspect the solution to this problem would involve the concept of a real abstraction. If other societies might look on wheat and see something in which we might immediately recognise a dense network of concrete social relations, detailing who produces, how, for whom, and why, and we look on wheat and see an object we experience as being devoid of such concrete social relations, the issue is not that our perceptions are less “socialised” than those of other human communities that look on the world in a different way. The issue is that we have been socialised into a context in which, at some level of social practice, we enact a genuine indifference to networks of concrete social relations. Our ability to perceive the world “materialistically”, to develop ideals related to forms of perception that might not be bound together in any particular kind of social relation, itself points to some level of social practice at which we are in practice indifferent to such relations – at which we treat such relations as contingent, arbitrary, dispensable. This level of social practice, I would suggest, enacts a real abstraction – not a transcendental illusion haunting thought as such, but a form of collective behaviour focussed (nonconsciously) on enacting a social context that transcends more concrete social practices, that relativises those concrete practices and makes them appear – as they are in fact demonstrated to be in our social practice – artificial human creations. When we look on objects and see objects – material things that we can meaningfully interpret in light of our sense perceptions – we are exploring our world through the unique lens provided by our own enacted, collective, practical indifference to more concrete forms of social relations, extrapolating the potential for a form of perception that views such concrete relations as radically contingent and artificial. This is a real abstraction.
From this standpoint, the options with which Deleuze and Guattari present us above are both too immediate. Their quotation criticises the tendency to privilege sense perception, against the standpoint provided by concrete social relations. I would suggest that a more adequate critique would first explain why it might be possible to privilege sense perception in this way – why, in spite of appearances, something more than biological (asocial) perception is at issue here – how what we perceive as “sense” perception is social through and through, to its most abstract formulations. At the same time, a more adequate perspective would recognise that concrete social relations might not be the sole standpoint for critique – or even, in some circumstances, a desirable standpoint of critique – but should themselves be understood as only a moment in quite complex social context that simultaneously generates, and relativises, such concrete relations. And, finally, a more adequate perspective might ask: in what senses is it good to be aware of concrete social relations? How have we perhaps been liberated in some senses by the possibility of not being aware of such things? We are presumably children enough of our time to find something liberatory about the notion that our wheat need not be grown under certain ritualised conditions, for example – can we perhaps differentiate this “secular” perspective as a normative ideal from the alienated conditions in which it arose, wedded as it was to a horrific social indifference to the gruesome conditions in which production can sometimes take place? This kind of process – of brushing history against the grain, in Benjamin’s sense, or recognising what we owe to the time that has birthed us as critics, while also reflecting critically on the ways in which that time stands in the way of its own best potential – is what would be involved, I suggest, in developing a more adequate self-reflexive critical theory of contemporary society.
This is all terribly incomplete, of course – even with reference to the narrow issue of coming to terms with “materialism” or “immanence” as a theoretical ideal, much more work is required, as there are more substantive claims buried within these concepts than just indifference to concrete social relations, and I haven’t even adequately grounded the bits and pieces to which I’ve gestured above. Some day perhaps I’ll become adequate to my own questions… I’ll also apologise once again for taking this one isolated quotation from Deleuze and Guattari, and using it as the springboard for critical reflections – I am acutely aware that isolated passages rarely represent the thoughts of any theorist, and my intention here was simply to take the quotation as a jumping off point, rather than to cast aspersions in any broader sense. I should also perhaps mention that Sinthome is also banned (if China can do it, so can I) from writing anything else interesting, until I’ve gotten through more of my own work…