Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: March 2007

Coffee Blogging

I think my affection for my coffee shop has long since reached the level where I should just create a “coffee blogging” category and have done with it. I can’t imagine anyone actually wanting to read the things I write on this place – like the time that I spend here, the entries I write about the experience are personal indulgences. Below the fold, then, before I bore everyone visiting the site… Read more of this post

Group Dynamics in Teaching

The collective personalities that emerge in groups of students remain a source of wonder to me. Read more of this post

Hegelian Poker

So the reading group reconvened for its first proper discussion in some time, to discuss Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia. I won’t pre-empt the substantive online discussion, which L Magee will lead off when time permits. It may be worth mentioning in passing a new reading group tradition – which somehow got dubbed “Hegelian Poker” – where the members ante (or should that be “anti”?) a gold coin into the centre, but then the rules for how you actually win the pot become rather murky and unclear. One suggestion – quickly rejected – was that if you won a point, you should get a coin, while if you lost a point, you should pay up. Another was that the pot as a whole should go to the member judged, at the end of the discussion, to have presented the best critical appropriation of our common text. The rule that actually appeared to win out (although I can’t seem to remember exactly when that whole intersubjective process of mutual recognition and consensus-building part took place) was that the pot went to the member of the group who proved most incapable of keeping their hands off it for the duration of the discussion – to the point of actually using the coins to illustrate various ways of understanding Mannheim’s text. Who knew how well a stack of gold could represent social groups in all their complex interrelations? I’m still not entirely certain how a bottle cap also sneaked its way into the pot – or how, having done so, it then assumed the role of the totality, in relation to the embedded groups represented by the coins. Then again, it was a Coca-Cola bottle cap, so perhaps there was some metaphoric affinity…

Memorable lines from the session:

“So, utopia is sort of like an irregular verb:

I am utopian.

You are ideological.”


It’s like American tourists – you know, they’re supposed to be awful and loud and brash, and almost none of them are really like that. But every once in a while, you meet one, and it’s like ‘My God! They are just like that!’


So I was standing at the photocopier, and this faculty member walked over, and she started gushing about my dissertation: “I hear such great things about your work – you’re making such wonderful progress – just going great guns!” And I’m just, you know, glowing. And then she said, “So, tell me [name of someone else in the reading group]…” and I realised that she had just confused me for someone else…

I’ll leave it to all of you to discern how each of these comments should have arisen – quite organically, I might add – in the course of a discussion of Mannheim. More substantive commentary on the text with LM’s post. The in-person discussion will pick up next week with Bloor’s Knowledge and Social Imagery – which means it will be a light week’s reading for me, as I’ve already written on this book for the blog.

I Do

This may be just about the funniest thing I’ve ever seen (it helps if you’re somewhat familiar with L Magee’s site and the topics discussed over there):

“HI! I’ve have similar topic at my blog! Please check it..

To the hundreds of fastidious commentators out there – I would love to “check it”. But the link always goes to some site which sells pharmaceuticals or other products I have no interest in. I really appreciate the sincere effort to connect on an intellectual level with my various interests: social theory, philosophy, computer science, the Semantic Web – but I’m not sure how your “blog” is “similar”? Did I miss the link to biological ontologies on your site?

Anyway, would love to discuss this further. Great blog by the way.

It does raise an interesting question, though: what kinds of spam would be relevant to your interests, LM? Perhaps you should engage in a bit of ontology-matching with some representative spammers to see whether your worldviews have more in common than you currently imagine. Perhaps there’s even some commercial potential here – a scale, perhaps, of the likelihood of spammers reaching intersubjective consensus with particular kinds of websites…

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. 😉

Don’t Begrudge Me

L Magee has rolled out the beta of the software for the PhD project profiled over at – thanking me “begrudgingly” for my support, by which I take it LM means the methodology slam to which I contributed last week – offline, alas, so no records of the slamming remain, but if any of you were wondering why I haven’t written on the reading group lately, that would be because last week’s meeting was given over to slamming, at the expense of discussing Mannheim.

LM is currently seeking volunteers to break – er… I mean test – the software, which aims to create an environment for collaborative ontology matching. Don’t know what this means? Go over and have a look! Still don’t know what this means? Go into the environment and have a play! Still don’t know what this means? Well, that’s LM’s problem – go ask over at schematique… Although my understanding is that it has something to do with a bit of applied philosophical research within a controlled experimental environment, oriented to uncovering the potentials and the limits of commensurability. So bring along your inner Kuhn or Davidson, and assist with the development of the software that will make or break LM’s dissertation research… ;-P

P.S. I’ve just gone over to have a play myself and, can I just say: once you’ve logged in, you’re offered a set of options that includes one called “destroy”. This option just seems so much more… appealing than the others. I mean, why do milquetoasty things like “copy” or “share”, when that bright, might-as-well-be-blinking “destroy” option looms so tantalisingly. What is it meant to be – some kind of collaborative “nuclear option”?

Gesturing at a History of the Immediate

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…


I’m seeing a few things on the web today that I identify with… a bit too much. First, even before I read the post, I felt a shudder of recognition (or was that someone walking over my grave?) when I saw the title of Sarapen’s “Today’s Paragraph”… I have to string together far more paragraphs than Sarapen does – and feel the same dismay when I perseverate over one of them…

Then, from is there no sin in it, A White Bear mentions a novel technique for carving time out for writing your thesis:

Back while I was writing my MA thesis, which was bad, I would often get so stressed by my lack of productivity and the social demands made of me that I would walk into my friends offices and declare, “If you need me, I’m dead.” Dead people don’t have deadlines, and they don’t have friends. We can all recall them with fondness, and then be really impressed when they come back from the grave with a few more pages written and time for a night at the bar.

My version of death allowed for five-minute phone conversations, during which I would reiterate the fact of my death and the instability of my undead spirit, which must return shortly to the grave. I could also occasionally be seen drinking coffee and eating lunch, but I assured those who saw me that I was, in fact, dead, and that they must be dreaming.

Being dead, I could ignore the news, the phone, the doorbell, my parents, my roommates, our cat, and the television. I could attend a party and not speak to a single soul. It is not within my current abilities to talk to you, you see. I’m dead. It was awesome.

This is awesome. I am so doing this. My version of death, I suspect, might include the odd seance with my reading group, and a bit of haunting of favoured websites – my coffeeshop alreadys sits on the boundaries of the nether realms, so I’m certain to be found lurking there. But I’m happy to surrender phone conversations entirely, and I suspect I won’t be material enough to answer knocks on my office door or to respond to invitations for social events. My goal will be to return from the grave having left a number of pages behind, as my writing struggle of the moment is to figure out how to focus and distill a mass of content that I had not originally intended to include in my dissertation, and that I had therefore written situationally, without the intention of tying it together into a linear argument that could be read and understood by people not embedded in the context in which the writing was done… Those people who tell you just to write – that it’s always easier to revise, than to start from scratch: I don’t think they’ve encountered writing quite like mine…

Immediate Concerns

I have so many substantive things I want to write at the moment – particularly in response to some fantastic ideas raised over at Larval Subjects, as Sinthome continues to reflect on how we can make normative judgments about particular forms of thought, within an immanent and self-reflexive theoretical framework that does not allow us to point those judgments back to notions of cognitive failure or “mere” errors of thinking. Sinthome reflects particularly on the issue of mediation and abstraction – where abstraction is understood as the collapse of mediation through a kind of reductive identification of a part with the whole. Sinthome counterposes a vision of dialectical thought as a process of revealing mediations – and the ways in which those mediations can come to be hidden inside the various forms of immediateness within which they appear. Sinthome concludes with a reminder of why it is not simply an “academic” matter, whether we should perceive objects abstractly or in their network of mediations, but instead an issue integral to political practice:

I’ve always had a certain fondness for Bergson’s theory of the perception-image. For Bergson, perception is possible action. Put more forcefully, I perceive that which is within my power to act upon. Bergson refers to it as “virtual action”. Consequently, Bergson speaks of increasing and decreasing powers of my body. My perception is a coordination between the action of the body and the world that gives itself to that body, as if in a reflected mirror. Here, of course, Bergson discovers in his own way the thesis of the identity of subject and object developed by Hegel in the Phenomenology.

In this connection it could be said that the question of the relation between the immediate and the mediate takes on a special urgency. For the question of what is given as immediate is a question of that upon which one can act or that which one can affect and be affected by. As such, the question of overcoming stupidity is also, not surprisingly, a question of acting well… Which has little or nothing to do with being well behaved.

va then follows Sinthome’s post with the question of who, within the sort of theoretical framework Sinthome outlines, is understood to educate sensibilities, perceptions or desires – or, in words more often used around these parts, how we should understand the standpoint of critique within this kind of immanent approach. Sinthome’s response points back to the long-standing cross-blog discussion of critical sensibilities, and picks up particularly on themes relating to the different types of theorisation that may be required, to make sense of different aspects of the emergence of critical subjectivities. I then pick up on this constellation of issues briefly and programmatically, in a comment I’d very much like to develop in greater detail here in the near future.

But first I have a toddler to take to the aquarium, and lectures to write, and a host of other… more immediate… concerns…


My coffeeshop has been going through a remodelling process over the past several months – a process we have occasionally had reason to suspect was orchestrated to make a lot of noise, so as to move us along, when we monopolise a table longer than our collective coffee rent justifies.

Aside from more structural changes, the remodel has also involved the addition of new furniture, including today’s novelty: a large “communal” table created out of a metal ladder, suspended between what look like those small metallic barriers occasionally used by street cafes to create a boundary around their outdoor tables. The rungs of the ladder are capped for the moment by ill-fitting metal plates salvaged from fire-escape-style staircases, but will eventually be covered by deliberately mismatched wooden planks. All pieces of the table – like the rest of the furniture and artwork in this place – have been created from materials salvaged and recycled from other places: the owner steadily collects, gathering materials into storage until he can visualise something that can be made from them. He also weaves people into his creations: the welding was done by a regular customer who happened to overhear the owner wonder who he should get to do that work. I’ve heard this kind of thing happen before here – been drawn into it myself, on occasion.

Because the owner deliberately mixes materials and styles, new creations tend to cause cascading transformations of the entire environment, as their idiosyncratic mix of stuff contrasts too starkly, or blends in too well, inspiring or irritating the owner to transform the space until things settle into a new dynamic tension. The interior of this space is thus in a constant state of transformation, occasionally interrupted by breathing periods of stasis.

The auditory environment is similarly bricoleured. There are times when I will swear the owner deliberately introduces profoundly irritating musical tracks just for the almost expressionist experience of relief it provides when the track has ended – it’s a thing of wonder and beauty, a genuinely novel way of experiencing a mundane and generally dull piece of music, when for the first time you hear it out of context, following something truly awful. Occasionally, I’ve been here when this kind of experiment doesn’t work as intended – when I’ve paused in my reading or writing in a kind of open admiration for how truly abysmal some cover or mix happens to be, only to have the music stop in mid-note and be exchanged for something else: at that point, I’ll know the owner agreed, and that the moment of transcendence I was waiting for – wondering to myself: what can possibly follow and complete this? – will never come.

This morning, though, it was the new table that was the centre of attention. I loved it on sight. I said as much to a member of the waitstaff, who at first smiled indulgently, and then realised I might be serious. They couldn’t contain their surprise: “You do?!” I think it’s wonderful, I repeated. They laughed nervously – I think they were convinced I was teasing them. You don’t agree? I wanted to know. More nervous laughter as they scuttled back to the kitchen.

The staff, apparently, are divided on the issue. The budding opera singer looked at the table with frank admiration. The owner gazes on it with no small mixture of externalised exhibitionism. The most senior staff member doesn’t see the table, only the owner’s tactile enjoyment of it, and that is enough.

Customers are divided as well. Everyone who ducks in for a coffee, even if they don’t normally investigate those nether realms of the establishment where the table resides, must come have a look. Again nervous laughs. Some customers clearly don’t believe this table will stay – it can’t be serious, this table. I mean, just look at it. A few offer suggestions for turning it into a more conventional eating surface: “Why don’t you just, I don’t know, cover it with a big plank of wood?” – “Oh I’ll cover it with several planks,” replies the owner, “but they have to be different colours, you see – they have to have different grains”. Some, too polite, reach for neutral words: “That’ll seat twelve people for sure”, one man offers. Others, more bluntly: “What happened to that medieval table thing you used to have here? I liked that.” The owner points to the fragments of what used to be one large tree-trunk table – now scattered against several pillars throughout the room, multiple tables now. He doesn’t explain that this multiplicity can also coalesce: if you hang around here long enough, you’ll occasionally see the fragments dragged back together into a plausible imitation of their former cohesive self.