Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Counter-Factual Immanence

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.

21 responses to “Counter-Factual Immanence

  1. Sinthome April 23, 2007 at 4:02 am

    Interesting and well articulated post. I think this is an example of why it is so important to clarify the use of terms. I use the term “immanence” in an entirely different way. In my usage, it doesn’t refer to social, cultural, or historical self-understanding, but is an ontological thesis that is almost synonymous with materialism. That is, immanence means no god or gods. Rather, everything admits of a materialist explanation without making reference to a transcendent being. For me, the stance you outline, perhaps, would remain mired in transcendence insofar as another culture or group is treated as being transcendent to (like an object) the perspective that is evaluating it. I don’t think immanence is genuinely immanence so long as it remains immanent to something… Whether that something be a mind (Kant, Phenomenology), a historical period, or a culture or social group. No doubt this is why I react so strongly to words like “normativity” (aren’t there other, better words?), and some of these questions as I take myself to be working outside a Kantian context and the sort of considerations put forward by Kant and continued after this tradition, which I take to be a serious wrong turn in the history of philosophy.

    But this is all irrelevant to your project, as clearly you reject the classical way of doing metaphysics. Within the constraints of your project, one caveat that comes to mind is structural in nature. Both Russell and Cantor demonstrated that we can’t have a set of all sets. In the case of Rusell’s paradox we always end up with a remainder or exception to the structure that doesn’t fit. This point was subsequently confirmed for cultural formations by structuralist ethnography that perpetually discovered an anomalous element to any structure that didn’t obey the rules of structure. This has also been a persistent motif throughout the history of philosophy with things like Plato’s good, etc., and is very likely the source of a belief in religious transcendence. The questions you’re posing very closely follow this logic of exception, and it may very well be that you’re speaking of a structural issue as if it were simply the result of not enough theory. That is, it might be a formal feature of structures that such an exception be present (as your fellow reading groups seem to be suggesting with their remarks about performative contradiction).

  2. N Pepperell April 23, 2007 at 5:33 am

    Many thanks for this. It doesn’t feel all that well-articulated to me at the moment… 🙂

    One problem is that I often use the term as an equivalent to materialism, as well – and I’ve been aware that there is a strong distinction between the sense I’m exploring above, which is the sense the term seems to hold in a specific (largely Hegelian-inspired) set of social science traditions, and the more expansive meaning encompassed by the concept of materialism. When we’ve spoken about the term at your site before, I’ve flagged this by distinguishing between – I think the terms I used were something like – “narrow” and “broad” meanings of the term, where “narrow” is the sort of meaning I’m exploring above (which I think is confined to a particular set of theoretical traditions), and “broad” is (what I think is the more common meaning) materialism.

    The remarks about performative contradiction, I should note, are actually mine: I’m not being accused of making one (I don’t think – LM? You can bring me up on this point if I’ve misunderstood). I’m myself bringing up the issue, as a problem in how some approaches toss around the term immanence, and as an explanation for why I don’t present my own work in a specific form, even though I can understand that an alternative form of presentation might be in some senses easier to follow.

    I suspect, though, that if I’m still sounding Kantian, I’m not articulating my point well at all: there is no sense in which this approach posits a particular culture or group as transcendent – although I think this criticism could be made of the first couple of theoretical approaches I outline above, which I was intending to discuss critically – these are not examples of something I would do, but just placeholders referring to things other people have done (I haven’t elaborated on this point above, as in a sense I think the critique is self-evident – but I could see how omitting this critique could cause confusion over what I think).

    To me, the point of the project is actually to ask whether questions of normativity require the sort of transcendent/positioning of something else as an object that you criticise above. What I see myself as doing, is actually trying to explain how we can justify normative evaluations without resorting to that kind of subject-object dualism. My suspicion is actually that the position that would hold that we must surrender normative claims when we surrender subject-object dualism, is actually still holding on to a vestige of Kantianism – that it is holding on to an understanding of normative judgment that in fact wouldn’t be compatible with a post-Kantian approach, declaring that the only possible way to discuss normative claims, and therefore declaring such claims impossible. My suggestion is that this isn’t… post-Kantian enough – and I’m trying to explore whether we can move a bit beyond this. The issue becomes important, of course, because we continue to make normative judgments in practice – without dealing with this issue on a theoretical level, those judgments are then necessarily positioned as essentially irrational – not simply on an individual level, but on a collective one. And so the secular theoretical position risks falling back into theological form – which is something I don’t think is necessary.

    The Russell/Cantor issue is not, I think, an issue (but again, perhaps LM can comment on his sense of this?) – although I’d be happy to hear a further elaboration of why it would be. Among other things, it probably isn’t clear from the post above that I actually suspect that the critical theory tradition wasn’t analysing what it took itself to be analysing – my suspicion is that this tradition is, in effect, the theory of a particular slice of social experience, rather than social experience as such, let alone experience as such. I’m not in this sense trying to come up with a grand unified theory of modernity – although certainly other approaches that have played around with similar concepts may have thought they were doing this. It’s just that, for various reasons that I will then need to spell out more explicitly, the “slice” that interests me is important for particular reasons – particularly due to its global scope and unusually dynamic and “abstract” character. These qualitative characteristics cause it to interact in odd ways with other dimensions of experience – and that interaction, I think, can help us understand some of the peculiar things about modern history.

    At the same time, I do have an explanation – at least the nucleus of one – for why particular theoretical missteps are plausible ones: in the post above, this wouldn’t have been clear, as I was tracing tropes in intellectual history, and so it would seem plausible to level the accusation that I’m basically accusing other people of poor thinking. You would know from other exchanges, of course, that I don’t really think we can accuse one another merely of poor thinking (although that can sometimes happen, too ;-P) – that there are structural reasons that particular sorts of positions would be plausible. At the same time, though, because I am trying to talk about how you can make normative judgments within this sort of framework (claims about the rightness or wrongness of theoretical positions count as “normative” in my terminology), a critique within my framework would involve talking about how someone else’s position is structurally plausible – and wrong… Again, we make these sorts of normative judgments all the time in academic work, in life in general: what I’m trying to do, in part, is investigate how we can talk about these things in ways adequate to a framework that rejects subject-object dualism.

    There is the possibility for this kind of analysis of immanence in the narrow sense, to react back against the concept of immanence in the broad sense – in the same way that you’ve mentioned LaPlace’s analysis might react back against religious worldviews (not suggesting that the concept of materialism is a religious concept, of course): if the forms of thought associated with immanence in the broad sense can be embedded within this sort of approach, it doesn’t “disprove” that such forms of thought apply on some general ontological level – but it may remove the need for the hypothesis. This is a very meta level of analysis, however, and not a primary “target” of what I’m trying to do.

    By the way: happy to use a word other than “normative” – not wedded to it at all. I’ve been using it because it provided a legible term within a specific disciplinary context – but that context isn’t necessarily the one to which I’m addressing my work. What I’m trying to capture are the sorts of things that have come up in some of your posts around religious movements, where you’ve rejected the ways in which such movements bring into the public sphere appeals to concepts that cannot be collectively verified or tested or discussed. I’m after a way of describing the sorts of concepts that fall into such a collectively-accessible secular space. The specific term is not important to me – my point is simply that we do make arguments and judgments in practice, the existence of objectionable movements and practices means that we likely don’t want to surrender our ability to make arguments and judgments in practice – and so I’m trying to explore how we can do this without positing norms as something that lie in an irrational space outside the reach of collective engagement.

  3. Sinthome April 23, 2007 at 7:06 am

    I guess I just wonder why, in a post-representational philosophy, normative claims need to be justified at all. Why not instead simply relate to theory as a way of life or a technology? The bat needs no jusification for its use of sonar, nor does a dog require justification for its use of sense. In analogy to this, theory can be thought as a proposal for living and interacting with the world in a particular way, rather than representations of the world. They are akin to motor-schema. “True” simply means that the predicted outcomes occur, whereas false means they fail. Or perhaps false refers to an illegal move within the constraints of that game. Good refers to an equivalence with the aims promoted by the schema, whereas bad refers to the opposite. Where the thesis that there is a world has been given up, questions of justification and grounding no longer need to be entertained. Instead a theory becomes a way of living among others in the jungle. I guess, for me, the question I always have when confronting a philosophy is not “is it true”, but rather what does it do and allow me to feel or experience. Or, “what world do I encounter when I adopt these categories as a lense?”

    The reference to Russell’s paradox is meant to underline the point that for any formal system there is an element that must be excluded or subtracted. Consequently, a system purely committed to immanence in your sense would, as a necessary consequence of properties of formal systems, necessarily contain a point of transcendence that it cannot eradicate. This was encountered early on in the history of philosophers with regard to relativism, i.e., everything is relative except the proposition that everything is relative. What you’re articulating is that the theorist herself is caught up in context when elaborating context, but speaks in such a way as to subtract herself from context. Here I think it’s worthwhile to take a page from Kant and argue that this is an unavoidable transcendental illusion, and then draw the implications of this transcendental illusion, just as Kant demonstrates that reason perpetually transcends the limitations of understanding as a feature of its moral vocation.

    I say that you treat other cultures as transcendent because you speak of them as being something in-themselves that is other than the theorist observing them. You treat them as transcendent to the theorist and then worry how the theorist can make claims about them that aren’t saturated by her own context. This is a variant of the Kantian phenomenal/nuomenal problematic: the culture as a phenomenal manifestation to the theorist synthesized according to the theorists own categories (context) versus the other culture or society being discussed as in-itself and unmediated. This ignores the way in which another culture is already other to itself or mysterious to itself, entertaining no special relation to its own history and culture. As Hegel liked to put it, the mysteries of the Egyptians were mysteries to the Egyptians.

  4. N Pepperell April 23, 2007 at 8:07 am

    Many thanks for this yet again – it’s extremely helpful.

    I’m actually specifically not worried about how we can make claims about the context that aren’t saturated by that context: I think that all claims will necessarily be saturated by the context, but simply dispute that this means that we can’t make and justify normative claims within that context, using standards immanent to the context itself. I am not trying to get “outside” – nor do I think getting “outside” is needed, in order to talk about normative claims.

    This is part of what I mean when suggesting that many approaches are not, from my point of view, post-Kantian enough: it seems to me that some approaches hang on to a Kantian understanding of normativity, then recognise that immanence rules this out, and then end up in exactly the situation you describe. My point is that we need to jettison, not just the Kantian framework, but the notions of normativity that go along with it – and that, having done this, there is actually still a meaningful sense in which we can talk about normative standards for us. My claim – which of course may be utterly wrong, but this is the intent – is that post-representational philosophy doesn’t rule out a discussion of normativity – it only appears to do so, when we’re sneaking tacit Kantian notions in through the back door, so to speak.

    I don’t, of course, assume that our culture becomes somehow transparent or fully definable or similar as a result of this kind of analysis. My point would be that it doesn’t need to be, for the sort of question I’m asking.

    I’ll have to apologise for not being able to address adequately the question in your first paragraph, which I love, and which I want to come back to, if it’s all right, after I’ve finished teaching for the day. On one level, I don’t think those questions are all that far from the shift I’m trying to effect (my vocabulary around “norms”, in this sense, may be somewhat misleading). On the other hand, in a shared context in which social conflicts are unfolding, it can be important to talk about ways in which the variegation within the context – the particular contours of a specific context – may make it meaningful in some very specific senses to treat social theories a bit differently from sonar – but I’ll have to get back to this when I have more time. Apologies for this…

  5. Sinthome April 23, 2007 at 9:08 am

    I guess I’ve never found the question of normativity that vexing. It seems to me that life evaluates.

    The reference to bat sonar was only meant as a metaphor or analogy, not as complex theoretical assertion. I think that we’re often stuck with an alternative between sense-data empiricism or rationalism or some combination thereof. I’m not suggesting you’re guilty of this, just situating my own thoughts. The common root is the idea that thought represents a world that exists independently of it, and the question is one of how it is possible to represent that world truthfully or accurately. After Darwin things get interesting as it becomes possible to imagine not only an evolution of species, but an evolution of umwelts or worlds as well, where we are talking about something less than a rationalism and more than an empiricism. That is, there’s structure here, a sort of “a priori” or pattern to experience, but it is not a distinction between what is thought (the rationalist) and what is experienced (the empiricist), but an ordering style immanent to a form of life (where style is something less than a logico-deductive rationalism, but more than empiricist, sense-data empiricism).

    Lest you worry that I’m trying to premise philosophical claims on scientific claims, Darwin seems to be very much an incarnation of the spirit of his time. We see this ontological perspectivism all over the place in philosophy and literature during the 19th century. I call it ontological perspectivism, because epistemological perspectivism continues to believe in a thing-in-itself independent of perspective that all perspectives more or less converge on, whereas ontological perspectivism treats being as such as difference or multiplicity and perspective as an emergent ontological strata that exists in its own right and which isn’t a convergence on self-same and independent objects. This is difficult to articulate. At any rate, this sort of ontological perspectivism can be seen in the work of Nietzsche and Bergson, as well as thinkers like James, Dewey, and Peirce, and is also found in literature like that of Henry James, Proust, and Joyce. A good deal of the historicists like Hegel, Dilthey, and Marx approach it, I think, without quite articulating it. Forerunners of this form of thought can also be found among 17th and 18th century thinkers like Spinoza, Leibniz, and Hume. I think Darwin just gives a particularly striking formulation of this thesis by virtue of his cross-species analysis, rather than focusing on the “human” alone (“human” must be put in square quotes now as different fields of individuation or ecologies allow the possibility of an identity of species when thought abstractly, but very different structures of cognition and affect due to emerging in different ecologies).

    I am not convinced that the shared context issue is so problematic. If we’re thinking ecologically, then we can think about co-development of elements in a field that begin to develop their own rhythms of exchange, dependency, and communication, much like the orchid and the wasp come to develop together without encountering the world in the same way. There are all sorts of questions to ask here about assemblage formations surrounding environment, economics, etc., that are not themselves communications but that imbricate groups and promote networks (that can either be harmonious or conflictual or other things as well). What’s interesting here, I think, is that such formations do not presuppose a shared perspective or way of seeing things. They can still be quite divergent, extremely so, while nonetheless interacting. This is one of the reasons I’m coming to prefer assemblage theory to systems. An assemblage is more than an atomism (that only grants existence to individuals) and less than a homogenizing system (that claims systems constitute their elements). You and I belong to lots of different and divergent assemblages (our employment, various friendships, local and national governments, etc., etc., etc) and form an assemblage here in the blogosphere, but nonetheless retain our individuality within this assemblage. Thus, unlike a system in Luhmann’s formulation, we’re not constituted by some totality from above, but constitute one another in our interactions and constitute ourselves, etc. It allows for a high degree of divergence among the elements entering into an assemblage, simultaneously seeing an assemblage (such as a society or ecosystem) as an individual while also allowing us to see individuals as belonging to that assemblage.

    I’d like to steal Benjamin’s term “constellation” to refer to such assemblages, though this might be confusing. As you no, I’ve read little Benjamin, so I have no idea if I’m using the term in the way he does. Rather, I’m thinking of a singular, existing, formation of elements thrown together and which hang together, like a stellar constellation that has its own immanent statistical regularities. I think of a constellation as almost being like pastiche, where a bunch of things are thrown together forming a sort of mad combination that may or may not have conatus or a power to endure. Benjamin is in no way guilty of my usage… I just find the word productive for thinking the contingency of existence. Today, in Spinoza, I read “By reality and perfection I understand the same thing” (Book II, Definition 6). One reading of this definition, mistaken I think, would be a Hegelian reading that claims that perfection is what is really real (much like Hegel’s understanding of truth and actuality as the identity of a thing with its notion). Another, stronger reading, would be that existence need not be contaminated by the notion, but is itself perfection. The aim here would be to think singular existence, rather than obfuscating it with the notion or representation. I think we need a new philosophy that thinks what I call “constellations” in their singular richness, resisting generalizing urges.

  6. Sinthome April 23, 2007 at 9:10 am

    Assemblages, incidentally, can only be studied empirically. No one could deduce my relationship to you or others in the blogosphere without actually tracing the networks. These configurations or constellations can’t be deduced. Consequently, not an a priori, but a historical a priori or a material a priori that must be found through the investigation of a constellation and a tracing of its fiberous networks and singular points, rather than deduced through thought.

  7. N Pepperell April 23, 2007 at 9:11 am

    Very, very quickly: I agree 🙂

  8. Pingback: Emerging Constellations-- Rough Theory « Larval Subjects

  9. N Pepperell April 24, 2007 at 12:41 pm

    Okay… let me try to draw together a few strands – with the caveat that I’m not particularly “ready” to try to outline what I’ll try to talk about here – I don’t have a good vocabulary for what I want to say, or much practice trying to articulate it…

    First, a tangent on what I’ve been calling the narrow and broad senses of the term “immanence”. We’ve been tossing around two concepts of immanence in our discussion over the past several months – a “broad” concept that essentially boils down to “materialism”, in the sense of “secularism”; and a “narrow” concept that relates to the rejection of subject-object dualism. I’ve been saying for some time that I use “immanence” in both narrow and broad senses, depending on the context in which I’m writing.

    I also sense that narrow and broad senses of the term are perhaps also at play in your discussion above? In your first comment, you say “immanence means no god or gods” – broad sense. You then move on to say: “I don’t think immanence is genuinely immanence so long as it remains immanent to something… Whether that something be a mind (Kant, Phenomenology), a historical period, or a culture or social group.”

    Now we’ll move into the part that I’ll undoubtedly say very badly: in both of our ways of understanding the narrow sense of immanence, my sense is that this narrow meaning does not follow in any inevitable way from the broad meaning – that secularism, per se, doesn’t intrinsically tell us anything about subject-object dualism. I’m very happy to be corrected here – this is an open question. It’s just that, while I know that these issues intertwine around one another in practice – with questions about secularism twisting around questions of subject-object dualism – I’m not clear that the connection is as necessary as the practical or intuitive interconnection suggests. The intuitive connection reminds me, in some ways, of Hacking’s analysis of the dual meanings of the concept of probability – refering both to aleatory conditions and to degrees of belief. Hacking asks how these two things should come to be perceived as intertwined into the same term. I have a similar curiosity, I think, about the notion of immanence.

    Hypothetically (there are, of course, real-world examples) one could embrace immanence in the sense of rejecting subject-object dualism, while retaining a religious worldview; and one could also assert a secular worldview, and retain various forms of subject-object dualism. So the two moments within our concepts of immanence can in principle be separated – and yet, here both of us are, albeit with perhaps different emphases, grouping these moments comfortably under the umbrella of a single term. Just as a placeholder, I am curious about the intuitiveness of this combination. I can’t go anywhere with this curiosity at this time – but just raise it as something to bracket for the future. I’m open to the suggestion that I am puzzled about something profoundly stupid here (I’m very tired – this tangent may be in the character of one of those things that strikes one as significant in a dream, and gets disspelled as irrelevant on waking – perhaps this is why I can’t go anywhere with my curiosity)… ;-P And, in any event, this point has nothing to do with what you were asking, and I raise it more as a placeholder for my own thinking…

    On the question you’ve actually asked, of whether I think I am analysing something that is immanent to something else: my position here is strange, I think. I suspect that most social scientists – probably most social theorists – are doing exactly what worries you. I’m not sure that I am doing the same thing – I might be, but I suspect what I’m doing looks more similar than it should to a standard “embedded in culture” or “embedded in history” analysis, because of the specific sorts of issues I tend to write about. I suspect, if I were speaking on a different level of abstraction, or on a longer historical register, I would probably start sounding much more similar to you, than I sound when I speak about the narrow collection of historically-specified issues that tend to draw my attention.

    My immanence, I think, is perhaps a bit… lumpy, particularly once one zooms in to a particular moment in time. So I see part of what I’m trying to do is to understand how, to persons individuated in a particular moment, the way things operate – around these parts, around this time – might render it plausible to characterise, experience and practice that moment in particular ways (because that is, in fact, what it’s like “around here, at the moment” – things appear as they are…). This doesn’t mean that our moment is immanent to something else (although this might be a plausible Newtonian approximation of the experience, so to speak) – but that immanence in our moment instantiates itself in a specific way, and I focus most of my thought on understanding that specificity, rather than on a more general ontology. Apologies for how exceptionally poorly formulated all this is… If you ask me about this in public, I’ll deny every word… ;-P

    Moving right along… On the Russell-Cantor issue: I don’t actually think I’m trying to develop a formal system that would be captured by this sort of paradox – and, in a sense, I don’t think we require Russell-Cantor to demonstrate that social life is messy and unpredictable. This kind of critique probably would apply to theories that make very strong claims about structure as generated by some kind of “law”, and it might apply to some applications of systems theory. My approach, though, is probabilistic at base: I’m happy to show that something is likely to happen – I’m not trying to show that something must happen or is inevitable – claims that might require someone to define a context as some kind of totality or self-enclosed entity. I don’t think I require this kind of theoretical move – but perhaps it’s implicit in a way I haven’t recognised.

    On the issue of normativity: I suspect we’re much closer than it sounds. I think this will probably end up being something like our early discussions about epistemology and ontology – where the terms are being deployed in ways that sound alien or contradictory from a particular disciplinary perspective, but are actually fairly compatible once we’ve worked out how to speak about the issue to one another. You’ve suggested a couple of notions above – gesturally – that point toward pragmatism or game-theoretic understandings: these are the sorts of transformations that happen to the concept of a norm, once you juxtapose it into an immanent frame. None of this presupposes any sort of outside standpoint to which all would be revealed – we remain mysterious to ourselves – it’s just that this mystery doesn’t entail relativism, within my approach, but rather a move to immanent standards or ideals.

    My laptop battery is fading, and I don’t have time adequately to address your comments on assemblages. Just a quick clarification that I don’t so much want a shared context, as I think that we’ve generated one, whether we want it or not… It’s an empirical, not (in this case) a normative issue for me – it’s something I see, not something I deduce (and, of course, I may be wrong in seeing it…). And so some of my work is directed toward understanding the implications of this situation. It would be possible to say that something like a constellation or set of assemblages would be better than any shared context we’ve generated unawares – and thus take the concepts of constellations or assemblages as a normative ideal toward which to strive – as categories that capture something that exists now, but alongside – and perhaps in tension with – a very different sort of collective self-organisation. It is then possible to explore whether the sort of involuntary and coerced forms of “universal” or shared context that we’ve generated is something that should be abolished, or whether it represents a sort of alienated potential that could be seized in some transformative way.

    In neither case, though, do Luhmann’s formulations really appeal to me – I’ve never really found his understandings of systems plausible, although I haven’t done sufficient work on him at this point that I would assert this in a strong way – perhaps I’ll change my mind. Of course, I haven’t made my mind up on assemblages, either. 🙂

    Sorry that this is such a ramble…

  10. Tusar N. Mohapatra April 24, 2007 at 7:27 pm

    In this interesting conversation, as a non-specialist I noticed that certain words like, immanence, self-reflexivity, normativity etc. have been subjected to rigorous scrutiny, but similar care have not been applied while using the words such as, social, historical , or culture. In the absence of an overall mapping the context travels back and forth between the mundane and the sublime. This tantamount to serious methodological lacunae, which I wonder, how goes unnoticed. Or, may be it is a deliberate ploy to allow the discourse continue and philosophy flourish.

  11. N Pepperell April 24, 2007 at 8:29 pm

    LOL! Yes, I suspect it would look a bit weird – particularly coming into this discussion at this point. I actually have, in other contexts, done work on the emergence of the concept of the “social”, “culture”, etc. – even in the original post here, I was nodding at this by gesturing at the notion of a historicisation of history.

    There’s a kind of conceptual ball-juggling act required when writing on this stuff, from the sort of perspective I’ve been using here – you have to balance the need, intrinsic to the framework itself, to problematise and reconceptualise foundational concepts, against the need to hold enough things constant within a specific discussion that you can try to communicate other things more clearly.

    At the same time, even if the specific terms “social”, “cultural”, or “historical” are not being pulled apart in detail, the discussion above actually does touch on these concepts – not to speak for Sinthome, but I suspect part of what is worrying him in how I’ve written above is precisely what he takes to be the vision of social, cultural or historical he is concerned that my approach might require – this is part of what’s at stake when he suggests that my approach sounds like it believes immanence must be immanent to something else. I’m then contesting whether that is necessarily the case – awkwardly, by trying to talk about the way in which immanence might come to be instantiated in different ways. Etc.

    So, in a sense, the questions you’re asking actually are there in the discussion – it’s just that, in this particular instance, we’re articulating the debate in relation to concepts of immanence, self-reflexivity and the like. In another context, we might well – and probably have well – gotten at a similar constellation of issues using different terms. Certainly there would have been a period – when I spent more time talking to sociologists and historians than I did to philosophers – when I would have spent a lot of time trying to tease out the implications of how terms like “social”, “cultural” and “historical” are deployed.

  12. René Daumal April 25, 2007 at 3:36 pm

    It seems to me that the critical moment, for the initial post, is here:

    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.

    In general, the history of the problem of immanence as it is written here is not so much the sociological problem of objectivity with respect to other cultures, as it is the political problem of finding the proper grounds from which to lob bombs at the existing state of oppression. Since the determinate grounds of an early Marxism prove insufficient, one begins looking for the determinateness (almost in a physical sense of “solidity”) of a pure negativity, experienced affectively as restlessness, and formally as akin to the scientific method.

    However, leaving aside for a moment the question of daily immanent determinations (about the United States engaging in torture, for example, or about the lack of adequate childcare and parental leave), I’m not sure that I can immediately assent to the proposition that the 20th Century “proved” anything about the viability of 19th Century projects of liberation (notably the project of Marx and Engels).

    This is because I don’t think that the free market, or private property, were ever superseded under conditions sufficient to the planned radicality of the experiment. Instead, such experiments as the Soviet state and the Chinese state represented isolated and incomplete trials of Marxist social change. The Soviet experiment was directed by Lenin and then Stalin, the Chinese experiment by Mao, and there are good reasons to consider Leninism, Stalinism, and Maoism as distinct from Marxism.

    If anything, the success of the Chinese state (where all of our blogs are, sad to say, banned) illustrates that conscious planning and commodity markets are perfectly compatible, a fact already proven by Fascist states and by the remarkably conscious rapacity of all multinational corporations.

    This is why, ultimately, I am far more sympathetic to efforts (by Zizek and others) to decisively articulate the radical core of Marxism, than I am to the identification of liberation with a restless negative dialectics. Even assuming that pure negation has a determinate content, one would be hard-pressed to claim that its content was identical with liberation; to do so would be to steal from liberation the accompaniment of joy.

  13. N Pepperell April 25, 2007 at 4:34 pm

    I was worried about the voicing of the original post in exactly the way you’ve mentioned: I’m not actually myself trying to claim that the market was superseded – sitting on our side of history, it’s quite easy to see that this verdict was premature (as, of course, was the late-1980s/early 1990s triumphalism on the primacy of the market). But this kind of historical experience or interpretation of the events of the early 20th century was pivotal for the development of the Frankfurt School line of critique – as, in turn, the experience of market triumphalism has been pivotal for certain critical traditions more recently…

    My own understanding of capitalism is far more decentred from the market as an institution, than the vision offered by first generation Frankfurt School theorists – my understanding is both: more Weberian (in the sense that I think that one of the historically distinctive elements of capitalism is actually its need for forward planning and predictability – the Frankfurt School folks both know this, and can never quite get around the idea in their basic theoretical categories) – and that capitalism is therefore quite compatible with strong states; and far more abstract (in that I see the basic structure to have something to do with the replication of a pattern of practice through time, rather than with the expression of that pattern in some particular configuration of concrete social institutions).

    I regard the restless, “virtual” slice of our context as an unintentionally-generated “structure” or “logic of practice” – and therefore as a distinctive form of (impersonal) domination. I am therefore also leery of attempts to identify this “counter-factual” with liberation. To me, this kind of identification is similar, in some respects, to late-19th and early-20th century movements that believed that the locus of emancipation would lie in centring society more closely around production and labour… I think both are perhaps confusing a direction that society is trending, with an emancipatory potential, and movements that do this in a naive and unqualified way may then struggle to defend against objectionable movements inflecting these same trends to very different normative ends…

    I also, though, think that it is possible to explore the potentials of a context characterised by such a practical counter-factual – that some liberatory potentials and normative ideals are suggested by living in and experiencing such a world. In exploring the determinate relationship between critical forms of subjectivity, and the context whose potentials those critical forms of subjectivity express, I would hope we could perhaps make it more likely to avoid a trap into which movements sometimes have fallen in the past, of a one-sided and non-critical embrace of elements of the current context – confusing an element that already exists in our current context, with emancipation – if only that element could be more fully realised, etc. My impulses – with Benjamin – lay in the prospect of brushing history against the grain – viewing some of the spoils of “progress” with appropriate scepticism – while also realising that we might still be able to appropriate potentials that were thereby generated in alienated form…

    Apologies that I am expressing this very crudely – I’m extremely tired today. But I very much like the line introduced in your comment, and hope the discussion can continue, or that I can take the issue up in a much more adequate way when I’m a bit less shell-shocked from too much teaching…

    Lovely blog title, by the way – speaks to two of my main interests – I might have wished for such a space… 🙂

  14. Pingback: Geophilosophy? « Larval Subjects

  15. rob April 26, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    I’m planning on coming back to this post (after I’m finally done with the Hegel ones, damn you!), but I just wanted to say thank you for clarifying what is meant (or what you mean) by “immanence”:

    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.

    That’s very helpful.


  16. N Pepperell April 26, 2007 at 7:56 pm

    I’m keeping tabs, you know, on all those comments you owe me, rob… ;-P

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  19. Ryan/Aless May 1, 2007 at 1:19 am

    I was led here by the “Whereof We Cannot Speak” post. This is an excellent delineation of Critical Theory. Shows thoughtful erudition and great explication. L Magee’s transposition of it into pseudo-propositional form in “Whereof We Cannot Speak” was also quite awesome. I didn’t really know where to place Habermas. But you’re right. He is part of this school, although perhaps occupying a quite ambivalent position (in contrast to say Benjamin and Adorno) (hence my ambivalent attitude to him as well). Also good mention of Mannheim, who I hardly encounter in discussions of Critical Theory.

  20. N Pepperell May 1, 2007 at 7:56 am

    Ryan/Aless – I was awed by LM’s transposition, as well – and that may well have been the better starting place, then reading this in order in which it was posted… Mannheim is interesting – as a group we’ve been looking at a lot of sociology of knowledge material, which is a tradition that shares some elements of a common problematic with Frankfurt School critical theory, but tends to have a very different normative evaluation of what it’s trying to analyse, so I find it a useful contrast when thinking through what’s distinctive about critical theory. Mannheim, though, is an outlier within the sociology of knowledge material, both because of his appropriation of Hegel, and because he does try to sketch a normative stance (or probably more like several stances that sit in tension with one another).

    In any event, I appreciate the comments – especially as I’m now having my standard sheepish reaction that always follows whenever I write something sweeping like this – time passes, you think of all the things you left out, etc.

    I’m ambivalent on Habermas too… 😉

  21. Pingback: Why I'm Not A Radical « The Kugelmass Episodes

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