One of the questions that comes up often in the reading group discussion of my project is why I don’t simply treat core concepts like immanence and self-reflexivity as something like a prioris – as posited starting points, from which the other theoretical moves can then be derived. Everyone involved in the reading group discussion presumably understands the logical contradiction involved in doing this: immanence posits that there is no “outside” to context, and therefore logically rules out the existence of “objective” grounds from which other trusted propositions can then be derived; self-reflexivity follows from immanence, and posits that the theorist remains embedded within the context they are analysing.
Both of these positions carry implications for the form of a theoretical argument, as well as for its content: to be consistent with the principles of immanence and self-reflexivity, the theorist must find the analytical categories that apply to a context, within that context itself. This is sometimes phrased in the form “categories of subjectivity are also categories of objectivity”: the theoretical categories in terms of which the theorist apprehends a context, are generated by the determinate properties of the context itself. Treating concepts like immanence or self-reflexivity as a prioris is an intrinsically asymmetrical approach, which deploys theoretical concepts whose determinate relationship to the context they grasp has not been explained. This asymmetrical move is therefore a performative contradiction, undermining the very concepts whose importance it seeks to assert.
The reading group understands, I think, what’s at stake on this logical level. Their question is, more along the lines of: who cares? ;-P Is there any practical significance to avoiding this kind of performative contradiction? Any purpose served other than a kind of pedantic desire for comprehensiveness and consistency? This is a fair question. To answer it, I may need to take a step back, and talk a bit about the special problems posed by notions of immanence and self-reflexivity for critical theory, in the specific circumstance in which critique understands itself as a determinate negation.
First to run through a few quick and somewhat simplified descriptions of ways theories can position themselves in relation to context. Descriptive or positive theories take context as a “given” and either perceive the context as essentially static, or as transforming itself in a necessary direction. The analytical categories expressed by such a theory can be understood – immanently and self-reflexively – as forms of subjectivity related to either the reproduction or the non-random transformation of the context.
Descriptive theories that adopt principles of immanence and self-reflexivity are generally normatively relativistic – tacitly retaining the notion that normative stances require a non-immanent standpoint – an “outside” from which societies can be judged – and thus viewing normative judgements as a necessary casualty of the move to immanent theory. It’s not unusual for individual theorists to embrace this relativistic understanding of immanent theory, but to produce theories with a strong normative “charge” – Weber is the obvious example. In terms of the reading group’s recent selections, Bloor might be another. Such theories tacitly break with the immanent frame – voicing a critical perspective for which the theoretical analysis of society does not account.
I always find myself wondering why theorists committed to principles of immanence and self-reflexivity don’t pay more attention to these sorts of normative “charges” in their own work: assuming the normative perspective is not a purely individual one – assuming that it resonates to some degree with others – then the presence of critical norms is a marker of complexity and nonidentity within the context. If the theory cannot account for the existence of such norms, then the context has not yet been adequately grasped: in these circumstances, I think the theorist should foreground the unexplained normative charge of their own approach, and ask how their understanding of context would need to transform, to accommodate the recognition that this context also generates such critical normative ideals… This problem, of course, does not exist for theoretical approaches that are content to embrace the context as a nonconflictual totality, which is itself then perceived as a normative ideal.
Positive theories can have a normative charge, and can therefore be non-relativistic. The normative standpoint, though, is derived from the theory’s affirmation of what exists or what is in the process of being generated by a context. The context itself – generally understood either as a non-contradictory entity, or as a conflictual entity whose contradictions will necessarily be resolved in a particular way – provides a normative standpoint. The most widely-known example of a positive theory with a critical normative charge would be the variant of Marxism that viewed the forces of production as exemplars and motivators for critical forms of perception and thought against which other dimensions of the social context could be found wanting. Other positive theories have pointed to the direction of the historical process, or to the perspective offered by society as a whole, as providing normative standpoints from the perspective of which other, more partial or more backward-looking, dimensions of social practice might be judged. The normative standards provided by positive theories take the form of asking whether particular practices or beliefs are adequate to enable some privileged existing institution, social group or trend to realise itself more fully. The realisation or achievement of a specific substantive endpoint would thus be the goal of this form of critique.
In terms of the reading group’s recent selections, some elements of Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia experiment with articulating this form of normative standard – pointing to the historical process as a sort of normative benchmark, and suggesting that forms of thought and practice can be judged by their adequacy to the dominant historical trend of the moment. Mannheim thus suggests (in some sections – the text as a whole is, I believe, somewhat contradictory) that forms of thought and practice that fall behind – but also forms of thought and practice that point ahead – can be criticised for not embodying fully the potentials of their historical moment.
Such positive theories have suffered over the course of the 20th century for many reasons – not least of which is the historical disappointment that set in, as it was recognised that the targets of early Marxist theory could be overcome, without the result being emancipatory – that the institutions of private property and the market could be superceded by conscious planning, without greater freedom resulting as the intrinsic and inevitable counterpart of this transformation. The concept of critical theory in its Frankfurt School sense emerged through these theorists’ confrontation with this historical experience, as they began to wrestle with the notion of what immanent and self-reflexive critique might mean, if it did not entail the alignment of critical ideals with some existent or trending element within the context. Their question of how to conceptualise critique as determinate negation – determinate in the sense of being in some way immanent to a particular context, and negative in the sense of not expressing the standpoint of some privileged element or totality – proved a complex and vexing one.
In terms of the reading group’s recent selections, Adorno’s contributions to The Positivist Dispute – which revolve around the notion of how certain things can be “real” or “objective”, without thereby being “facts” – are orbiting around this question. Adorno asks, in effect, how we can render immanent Popper’s understanding of science as an ever-restless “critical tradition”, how we can understand the forms of subjectivity Popper expresses, but in a self-reflexive way, by grasping the associated forms of perception and thought in their determinate relation to a specific context. Adorno argues, in effect, that the sort of restless critical perspective Popper identifies with science – which Popper frames as an intrinsically counter-factual ideal that could never be achieved – suggests the existence of something counter-factual about the context itself. Adorno then criticises Popper (I’ll leave aside for present purposes whether this critique is correct) for denying the possibility that something non-factual might also be “objective” – a criticism that hits home, for Adorno, precisely because Popper shares a largely compatible vision of the critical process as a form of negation – missing only the analysis of why even this type of eternally restless and counter-factual critique is not a pure negation, but a determinate one – one that can be analysed immanently and self-reflexively in its relation to a specific context.
Adorno suggests that, for such a counter-factual critical ideal to seem plausible, something counter-factual must exist – not only as some kind of subjective ideal or conceptual abstraction, but as an “objectivity” in our shared context. In some sense, this objectivity itself must be something that cannot be characterised or captured purely in terms of “facts” and “givens” – our context must have something intrinsically counter-factual about it, which this vision of critique then expresses. Yet how to capture, how to grasp, the reality or objectivity of a counter-factual? Adorno suggests that dialectics is required – and yet, in this and other writing, also suggests that dialectics is no longer adequate to this task: the critique of Popper thus crashes into the very point where the first generation Frankfurt School theorists themselves ran aground. For this generation – armed primarily with conceptual tools related to concepts of class domination – never quite grasps, conceptually, what it nevertheless also argues must exist: something restless, ceaseless, churning through time, at the very heart of our context – something that can dispense with concrete social institutions and practices – something that is itself a kind of “real” counter-factual – a counter-factual that instantiates itself through transformations of concrete social institutions in time. The first generation Frankfurt School theorists mean, but can never quite get their theories to say – to grasp – how a particular vision of critique can be inspired immanently by such a restless context, with its intrinsic, but ever-shifting, contradictions between what has been factually realised, and the counter-factual restlessness that smashes through all such realisations in the end. They thus never quite fulfil their own self-reflexive standard. This failure itself points to how this tradition fails to grasp the determinate character of the context – a pessimistic impasse that the first-generation Frankfurt School theorists acknowledge, but never overcome.
Habermas sees, and then recoils from, this precipe, seeking his counter-factuals elsewhere, on firmer ground – I’ve criticised his position in detail elsewhere, and won’t revisit the issue here. The reading group may look at his work later in the year, and can discuss the pros and cons of his approach at that time, if it seems appropriate to revisit this issue.
For present purposes, and in conclusion, I want to step back a bit from the sort of sketchy (and necessarily oversimplified) intellectual history I’ve tossed out above, to return to the reading group question that motivated this post: why not simply posit the standards of immanence and self-reflexivity as arbitrary ideals – as axioms, if you will – and move on from there? Leaving aside pedantic and purist concerns with logical consistency, what would be the “payoff” from trying to “close the loop” by exploring how these ideals themselves might be consistently grasped?
What I have tried to suggest – very incompletely – above is that, if the concepts of immanence of self-reflexivity are valid, then these concepts actually provide important substantive clues about the nature of our context – about what our context is. This means, among other things, that our inability to grasp such concepts – to relate them in some determinate way to our understanding of what the context is – provides an important feedback mechanism – a form of theoretical double-entry bookkeeping ;-P – to let us know that we may have another think coming, that we may need to go back to the drawing board to see what we’ve overlooked – or at least to follow the first generation Frankfurt School theorists in acknowledging openly the existence of an impasse we don’t currently know how to resolve.
At the same time, certain kinds of ideals – and I would include immanence, self-reflexivity and determinate negation specifically here – suggest that our context might contain some very peculiar qualitative characteristics. Among other things, the existence of such ideals suggests – as I’ve hinted above – that the context may be peculiarly layered, generative of a restless pattern of social practice and thought capable of tossing aside and rending asunder any institutionally embodied forms of social practice – while also embedded within, and existing nowhere other, than in those same institutionally embodied forms of social practice: such a vision of social context suggests that the contradiction between is and ought should be understood as introjected into the heart of all concrete social institutions, rather than between some institutions and others, or between totality and moment. It suggests, in other words, that something like a practical counter-factual is operative in what Adorno would call an “objective” sense – that counter-factual visions of critical tradition do not arise simply as conceptual ideals, but express something that we also do in our collective practice. It also suggests some more complicated things (you weren’t thinking we had reached the complicated stuff yet, were you? ;-P) about the historicisation of history – about whether immanence itself must be understood as something achieved, and therefore as something not true, or not true in the same way, of earlier historical periods. Similar arguments can be made for self-reflexivity.
So my position would be that the inability to deploy concepts like immanence and self-reflexivity symmetrically is a sign that something has not been adequately understood about the context and about these ideals. This failure of understanding can have practical consequences for individuals and movements trying to achieve specific goals, who may be blindsided by the unanticipated character of a context whose contours are – I have been suggesting – by no means fully defined by the sorts of concrete social institutions and practices that we all find it intuitive and easy to see.
Much critique targets the concrete – as do most movements – and perceive it as liberatory when the concrete dimensions of a social context prove vulnerable to political action. Criticisms and struggles against concrete institutions and practices can of course be pivotal, and nothing in my approach would diminish the importance of political action around such targets.
At the same time, the nonsymmetrical nature of such critiques – which aim themselves at concrete institutions, without also understanding why such institutions might be vulnerable – leaves us poised to reproduce, endlessly, the more abstract, restless, and counter-factual dimensions of our social context, without even being aware that these exist. As a consequence, we close off conscious deliberation on this practical counter-factual, confusing it – as I’ve begun to hint in various posts on the determinateness of “nothing” – with a pure negative, with what remains when everything determinate has been stripped away. I am trying to call attention to the determinate characteristics of what is often taken to be a pure negation, to demonstrate the practical basis for what is often taken to be a conceptual abstraction – and thus, potentially, to open up a realm for conscious action that is currently walled away. And all of this, unfortunately, lands me in a position where I don’t think I can slice through the Gordian knot presented by my theoretical categories – however tempting this might sometimes be – by framing them as axiomatic starting points: I suspect this would precisely and specifically direct attention away from where it is most required… But perhaps the reading group members or others will have a different view.