Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: March 2007

Libraries as a Transformative Space

From a conversation earlier today:

I remember going into the Baillieu library for the first time, and realising, not how little I knew, but how little I would ever know.

Site Maintenance

Since Sunday evening would usually be a low-traffic night, and I am organising a blog for one of my courses anyway, I’ve been playing around with the backend for this site – upgrading WordPress and playing around with a few new plugins and such. Apologies to folks who may have been trying to access the site – particularly when the upgrade broke the old pagination plugin, and the entire posting history of RoughTheory loaded onto the front page… That was one massive scroll bar! There have also been various moments (and will likely be others over the next couple of days) where database errors prevented some or all of the site from being accessible.

Apologies for all of this (since comments were actually being posted through some of the chaos, I know at least a few people were trying to view the site while some of this was going on). And do please let me know if you notice any lingering issues.

The Little Picture

Sinthome over at Larval Subjects has been posting a series of reflections on the relationship between Lacan and Deleuze & Guattari – revisiting what were apparently some of the foundational irritations that led to the creation of Larval Subjects. The most recent post also gestures toward some of the issues Sinthome and I have been discussing over the past several months, and includes a particularly interesting set of quotations from Deleuze and Guattari, revolving around the issue of the ways in which “overarching” social structures that are often conceptualised as being “macrological” in character can equally be conceptualised as “micrological” – as structures of family life and everyday interaction. Sinthome then suggests that this simultaneously macrological and micrological character of social structuration raises some potentially interesting questions for how we should understand the emergence of critical sensibilities, and how we should conceptualise potentials for structural transformation.

My schedule is unfortunately awful at the moment, and so I won’t be able to take up these issues substantively – most likely for several weeks. But the basic issue of pointing to the ways in which social structures permeate micrological contexts is one that has interested me for quite some time. When I used to teach on Marx, in a period in which my students were likely already to be familiar with a form of Marxism that focussed on macrosociological conceptions of structural constraints (essentially confusing finance capital with social structure, but no point in diving into minutiae…), I used to collect stories of micrological examples of forms of perception and thought that I could use to demonstrate that the reproduction of a social structure (the “cause” of a social structure, in some sense) could operate on a very wide range of scales, effected through institutions and practices one wouldn’t necessarily consider if social structure were being conceptualised as an intrinsically and exclusively macrological entity. One of my favourite stories was something that I witnessed one day when I was walking home from teaching. I found myself at a streetlight behind a precocious kindergartner and his mum, who seemed to be returning home from what had apparently been some kind of event led by a local historian at the child’s school.

Flushed with excitement, the young boy recounted the event, and then breathlessly declared: “When I grow up, I want to be a historian!”

A long paused received this statement and, while the boy looked up curious, waiting for his mum’s response, one could almost hear the mother calculating furiously in her head – the costs of university tuition, balanced against the probability of future employment and income in such a field… No: things didn’t look good… Eventually, the mother guardedly offered, “You know, when you grow up… You want to get a job you can enjoy. A job that is meaningful and that you like to do. That’s really important. But… You know… You also want to make money…”

I found this wickedly delightful – could one find a more concise lesson in the difference between use value and exchange value? And yet this lesson was taught on the street corner in a mundane domestic interaction far removed from the sorts of settings social theorists often consider, when talking about the reproduction of social structure… How many other such interactions must be taking place, in how many other street corners, shops, kitchens and schools, refracting and reproducing a quite abstract structure of perception and thought?

The passages Sinthome quotes from Deleuze and Guattari seem informed by a similar appreciation for micrological reproduction of social structures as mediated by the family – a process in which socialisation means something more than just the rearing of a child in the context of the intimate dynamics of the household, but is also a process of socialisation into a much broader context. Sinthome then asks what implications this form of socialisation within the household might have, for the ways in which we come to be affectively attached to, or repelled by, dimensions of our broader social context. Excellent questions – I’d very much like to take them up in relation to some aspects of Adorno’s writings on similar issues, but at the moment I sadly don’t have the time. I do, though, expect these and related questions will recur as the discussion moves along… For the moment, I’ll just point folks over to the Larval Subjects post, which also leads on to some interesting discussion in the commentary, spiraling out in a wide range of directions from the concerns of the original post.

Placeholders on Conscience and Consciousness

I’m much too tired to attempt a serious post on the topic that interests me at the moment, but I’ve been trying to recapture a bit of equilibrium from a chaotic schedule by wrestling with Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. So many questions for me in this text… What does Adorno believe can be transcended, and what is intrinsic to thought? What is the historical register of the argument here? Is the underlying argument about the distortions of conceptual thought fundamentally a “psychological” one – such that the qualitative characteristics of universalisation and of identitarian impulses are understood as necessary scar imprinted on thought by defense mechanisms?

I go back and forth on these questions, although my suspicions point me in particular directions – directions that suggest tensions within Adorno’s thought. I believe the underlying explanation for what Adorno regards as the qualitative characteristics in conceptual thought – for universalism and identitarian thinking – is psychological: that Adorno ultimately sees these qualities as the traces of a defense mechanism at work, as the signs of thought scarred by fear and denial. The historical register for the operation of these defense mechanisms appears to be very long – occasionally, Adorno gestures at something that might resemble the advent of capitalism, but often at civilisation as such – and sometimes even at something more ahistorical:

The system by which the sovereign Spirit thought to transfigure itself has its Ur-history in that which is pre-intellectual, in the animal life of the species. Predators are hungry; the pounce onto the prey is difficult, often dangerous. The animal needs, as it were, additional impulses in order to dare this. These fuse with the displeasure [Unlust] of hunger into rage at the victim, whose expression is designed to terrify and weaken the latter. During the progression to humanity this is rationalized through projection. The animal rationale [French: rational animal] which is hungry for its opponent, already the fortunate owner of a super-ego, must have a reason. The more completely that what it does follows the law of self-preservation, the less it may confess the primacy of this to itself and others; otherwise its laboriously achieved status as a zoon politikon [Greek: political animal] loses, as modern German puts it, credibility. The life-form to be devoured must be evil. This anthropological schemata has been sublimated all the way into epistemology. In idealism – most obviously in Fichte – the ideology unconsciously rules that the non-Ego, l’autrui [French: the others], finally everything reminiscent of nature, is inferior, so that the unity of the thought bent on preserving itself may gobble it up, thus consoled. This justifies its principle as much as it increases the desire. The system is the Spirit turned belly, rage the signature of each and every idealism; it distorts even Kant’s humanity, dispelling the nimbus of that which is higher and more noble in which this knew how to clothe itself. The opinion of the person in the middle is the sibling of contempt for human beings: to let nothing go undisputed. The sublime inexorability of moral law was of a piece with such rationalized rage at the non-identical, and even the liberal Hegel was no better, when he walled off the superiority of the bad conscience, from those who demurred from the speculative concept, the hypostasis of the Spirit. (ND 35-36)

I’ve always been drawn to Adorno’s focus on rage – and particularly to his recurrent concern with understanding how rage comes to be directed specifically toward the powerless and the weak. I think this is a pivotal question, and I suspect it would be very difficult to answer without the appropriation of some kind of psychodynamic theory. I am also drawn toward Adorno’s suggestion that historically constituted potentials for transformation constitute a conscience – a reservoir of recognition that other and more is possible, and moreover a recognition that cannot be avoided, although it can certainly be denied. For Adorno, there is a price to pay for this denial, and this price does not fall exclusively on those most visibly disadvantaged by current social arrangements.

Beyond this point, though, I find myself reluctant to follow. I’ve remained unconvinced by Adorno’s attempt to extrapolate from his analyses of rage and of bad conscience, into an explanation of the qualitative character of universalism. My hesitation, I think, relates to how I think this approach forces a long historical register, rendering it very difficult to grasp and make sense of qualitative distinctions in forms of thought across time. I believe more historical nuance is possible – and that achieving this level of nuance then makes it possible to think more productively about what might, and what might not, be possible to transcend. But I’ll have to leave this point as nothing more than a placeholder – even if I were more alert, this would not be a position I could develop easily or in a short space.

What I’ve always wondered, though, is whether, if I were to develop this argument, it would react back on those elements within Adorno’s thought that do appeal – whether it makes sense for me to be drawn to Adorno’s arguments about rage and about a sort of Benjaminian historical conscience, while rejecting the arguments about universalism as the product of a defense mechanism geared toward the denial of the potential for transformation… It’s time, I suppose, that I develop my position in sufficient detail that I can begin to resolve some of my own questions…