Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: May 2007

Life on Mars

“…there is no reason to suppose that an inhabitant of Mars would see us more ‘objectively’ than we, for instance, see ourselves.” ~ Karl Popper

Popper, K. (1976 [1962]), “The Logic of the Social Sciences”, The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, p. 92. Read more of this post

Speech Impediment

I’ve attended a couple of fantastic seminars on Frankfurt School critical theory recently – part of a series conducted by another university. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn about the series until it was well underway, and was able to attend only the final two. The regular participants were very tolerant of this strange interloper who dropped in on their sessions uninvited, and ushered me along with them to the meal and drinks that followed the final seminar last night.

As it happened, there was some discussion over dinner about my own theoretical work. I have these sorts of discussions all the time with the reading group folks, of course, but we know one another well, and have built up to discussions of our own projects, from the simpler starting point of shared discussions of other texts. And I have these sorts of discussions all the time online, as well. But – and here is the interesting thing – I had grossly underestimated the impact of those online conversations on how I currently think about theoretical discussion and debate.

So I found myself last night, trying to explain a project that, admittedly, is rather difficult to explain in the best circumstances, so I wasn’t particularly expecting to sound anything other than vaguely insane. (The visiting scholar leading the seminars listened to me for a while and then, somewhat puzzled, offered, “Well, you know… these things… I mean… One needs to put them aside for ten years or so, as it were – they are so big… And, then, maybe, one can come back to them…”)

But what I found myself feeling most acutely was a kind of chafing under the restriction of not being able to write out my response – my hands were longing for a keyboard, and I kept thinking: this would just be so much easier to explain if I could lay out a bit of background, and organise the presentation a bit more linearly – if I could just respond in email or on the blog. I spent the whole evening experiencing the… er… medium of speech as incredibly limiting, and longing for the additional expressive potentials available in online exchanges.

There is, of course, a grass is always greener dimension to this reaction: in online exchanges, I often find myself wishing that someone could just see my body posture, or hear my tone, and thus avoid mistaking my intention or affect… And, in fact, in specific respects this in-person discussion was able to be a bit more hard hitting than I can be online, precisely because it was quite easy to communicate nonverbally whether the focus were on the person, or on the ideas. I managed to get through an evening of theoretical discussion and, at times, quite pointed disagreement, without having to pay all that much attention to smoothing emotional reactions – something that can be quite difficult in online exchange.

Still… the systematicity that gets lost in face-to-face exchanges, the lost ability to post information that can quickly get a reader reasonably up to speed, if you’re coming at a common problem from an unusual or obscure perspective… (When a very bright person expressed that they needed me to define some of my technical terms – like “macrosociological” – it’s fairly clear we’re coming from vastly different disciplinary backgrounds, and some basic work in building a shared vocabulary will be required before discussion can move forward…) So I kept stumbling across these moments where I couldn’t help but long to translate the discussion into an online space.

I missed my keyboard…

Dungeons and Discourse

Even though it’s not on his blog, I’ll still blame Russ from Knotted Paths for this one: click through to see the full strip…

Dungeons and Discourse comic excerpt

Note: @2005-2006 Aaron Diaz

Couldn’t Have Been Me…

I just received the following email:

What have you been teaching?

One of my students is talking about ‘regulatory ideals’ in relation to [an applied research project]! This is most distressing…

A Larval Festschrift

Sinthome’s Larval Subjects posted its first entry on 21 May 2006. Today therefore marks (Australian time, at least), the close of the first year of this extraordinary blog. This anniversary sees me thinking back to my own discovery of the site. I can remember spending a month or so lurking and gathering courage before testing the waters with a trivial comment. I followed this with a belated post here on one of Sinthome’s reflections on the symptomatic forward-directedness of academic work, and then hazarded a comment on Sinthome’s reflections on the US elections. I eventually got around to asking several naive questions about Lacan, not suspecting that this would lead to an extended collaborative conversation that continues to this day.

I’m not sure what gift is appropriate for a blog’s first birthday. I hope perhaps a brief look back at the earliest post might not be misplaced. Sinthome has occasionally expressed uncertainty about the continuity of the materials posted to the blog. Blogs, of all forms of writing, owe readers no such thing, and yet I do tend to see a strong consistency in the central themes and concerns of this particular blog – and my reading of the inaugural post is compatible with this impression.

The first post at Larval Subjects wrestles with the complementarity between Lacanian theory and critical philosophy, and introduces the blog’s recurrent concern with how philosophy can reconceptualise itself in a form adequate to two historical insights that both point toward the need to reject transcendent standpoints: the shift toward materialist explanations, and the collapse of belief in the identity of the subject.

The post begins with an excerpt from Nietzsche on the death of God, which Sinthome immediately relates back to the Lacanian notion of the non-existence of the big Other:

In The Gay Science Nietzsche writes,

“The Madman. Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lighted a lantern and ran to the market-place calling out unceasingly: “I seek God! I seek God!” As there were many people standing about who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. Why? is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or does he keep himself hidden? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea voyage? Has he emigrated? – the people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub. The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. “Where is God gone?” he called out. “I mean to tell you! We have killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? – for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife – who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event – and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!” Here the madman was silent and looked again at his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. “I come too early,” e then said. “I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is traveling – it has not yet reached men’s ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star – and yet they have done it themselves!” It is further stated that the madman made his way into different churches on the same day, and there intoned his Requiem aeternam deo. When led out and called to account, he always gave the reply: ‘What are these churches now, if they are not the tombs and monuments of God?’” (paragraph 125).

I will not here enter into a long discussion of Nietzsche’s narrative as to how we came to kill God. This is not a joyous proclamation– though it may have joyous consequences –but a lament. As Lacan argues, traversing the phantasy lies not so much in coming to see how we are castrated, fissured, or non-identical, but rather coming to see how the big Other through which we organized our desire does not itself exist. That is, the very co-ordinates of our world, desire, and identity collapse when we come to discern the non-existence of the big Other. This comes out most clearly in Descartes’ third meditation, where we are shown how God is not simply the guarantor of the truth of clear and distinct ideas, but of our very being or existence. In this precise Lacanian sense, then, both atheist and theist can still think prior to the death of God.

Sinthome argues that the problem posed by this story is not simply that of a rejection of theism, but rather the more fundamental issue of how we coordinate ourselves in a world without some sort of transcendent standpoint with reference to which meaning and identity could be fixed:

The central “onto-theological” assumption is not so much that of God– God, as Descartes argues, is only a guarantor of that which cannot be guaranteed by our senses or appearances –but rather the assumption of the One. Whether the One be substance remaining identical throughout change such as Descartes’ wax, or the one of a transcendent form immune to the distortions of images, appearances, and sophists, or whether it be the one of personal identity or a subject that is the same despite all its ever changing thoughts, or the one of a holistic universe where everything is interconnected and harmonious, or the one of a state, the one is always the avatar of theological thought. As such, the death of God signifies first and most fundamentally the end of the primacy of the One in whatever form it might take. To announce the death of God is, as both Deleuze and Badiou have declared, to simultaneously declare that the One, the identical, the same, is only a product, a result, a term-become rather than a foundation or first. As such, metaphysics in the wake of God is a metaphysics that seeks to think difference first and to see identity as a result or product. That is, we must be vigilant in tracking down and eradicating all remainders of theology within such a thought.

Characteristically, Sinthome draws this point back to the ethical question of what happens when philosophies of identity come to be translated into practice – or, more tacitly, to the inability of philosophies of identity to provide critical purchase when we are confronted with movements or institutions that aim at the (inevitably coercive) establishment of identity:

Philosophically those ontologies premised on identity or the One as their first principle issue in irresolvable problems. Ethically and politically such philosophies are premised on the predominance of the Imaginary, the yearning for totality, completeness, and wholeness, as can be seen in Augustine’s example of the army and the city. The problem is that such organizations are inherently conflictual. As Plotinus, another thinker of the One will write when describing beauty and purity, “If a man has been immersed in filth or daubed with mud, his native comeliness disappears and all that is seen is the foul stuff besmearing him: his ugly condition is due to the alien matter that has encrusted him, and if he is to win back his grace it must be his business to scour and purify himself and make himself what he was” (Ennead I, sixth tractate, paragraph 5). This little parable ought to serve as the skeleton key for all philosophies of the One. Every desire for the One– whether in the form of identity, collective unity, the holism of the universe, etc. –is always accompanied by this “foul stuff that besmearches” it or the alien matter that must be eradicated. As such, we must ask whether it’s possible to formulate a politics beyond the One, beyond identification, beyond identity, and an ethics beyond the same. Lacan expresses this entire dialectic well in his discourse of the master.

Sinthome concludes the post with a challenge – asking how we can reformulate a conception and a practice of philosophy that would be adequate to these historical insights and ethical concerns:

Thus another way of formulating the question of the death of God is to ask what a philosophy that was not premised on the discourse of the master would look like.

Jumping forward from this post to the present, we see Sinthome currently deeply engaged with unfolding a series of philosophical concepts intended to grasp how abstractions or identities might be generated – but seeking to understand such entities within a resolutely materialist framework that can grasp such identities precisely as products or effects – as things that have arisen, and that can fade away. In a recent post, Sinthome expresses this in the following way:

The arabesque is like a unity or a figure that emerges out of a heterogeneous background and maintains itself in time. This would be one way of thinking about N.Pepperell’s abstractions: Namely as unities that emerge in a complex field, that “select themselves out” as it were, and maintain some stable unity in time or against plurality, forming a particularly potent tendency within the field out of which they emerge. All of this is still very vague and the dynamics would differ from system to system and would have to be approached from a variety of different perspectives depending on whether we were talking about social systems, physical systems, psychic systems, etc, but perhaps it is some small start in simultaneously thinking these buzzing networks and the unities, along with the material reality of those unities, that emerge out of them. I end with an enigmatic remark by Whitehead that underlines my thesis that rhetorics aren’t simply about something, but are something: “…[A] proposition is the unity of certain actual entities in their potentiality for forming a nexus, with its potential relatedness…” (24). Note that he does not say a proposition represents the unity of certain actual objects, but that it is the unity of certain actual objects.

So we have here the unfolding of a set of philosophical concepts – however preliminary – based on capturing multiplicity, which are intended to support a notion of practice based on a conception of the materiality of communication: would it be fair to characterise this as a response to the sort of challenge with which the blog begins?

Sinthome describes the blog as a space in which philosophical larvae may safely unfold:

Larvae are creatures in a process of becoming or development that have not yet actualized themselves in a specific form. This space is a space for the incubation of philosophical larvae that are yet without determinate positions or commitments but which are in a process of unfolding.

It feels to me as though the recent posts show a growing determinacy in relation to some of the blog’s early questions – as though perhaps some of Sinthome’s larval subjects are gradually assuming a more definite shape, hinting to us the forms into which they will grow. It will be exciting to see how this and other trajectories of thought develop in the coming year – through which combinations of continuities, breaks, and – especially – novel creations.

Holding Patterns

Sinthome from Larval Subjects continues our recent conversation, following up on the issue of how to conceptualise abstractions within Sinthome’s unfolding framework for analysing assemblages or constellations. Along the way, Sinthome picks up on Steve Shaviro’s recent reflections on Whitehead and Deleuze. Sinthome uses Whitehead to suggest some potential paths into the questions of self-reflexivity and immanence we’ve been discussing:

Writing of the purpose of philosophy, Whitehead remarks that,

The explanatory purpose of philosophy is often misunderstood. Its business is to explain the emergence of the more abstract things from the more concrete things. It is a complete mistake to ask how concrete particular fact can be built up out of universals. The answer is, ‘In no way.’ The true philosophic question is, How can concrete fact exhibit entities abstract from itself and yet participated in by its own nature? (20)

The point here is not to dismiss the abstractions, but to show how they are generated out of more basic elements that he refers to as “actual occasions”. In short, for Whitehead these generalities are themselves real. Nor are they simply cognitions. They can themselves be things. These unities and abstractions generated out of actual occasions are themselves actual occasions. As Whitehead will write a couple pages later, “…in the becoming of an actual entity, the potential unity of many entities in a disjunctive diversity– actual and non-actual –[that] acquires the real unity of the one actual entity; so that the actual entity is the real concrescence of many potentials” (22). By “concresence”, Whitehead intends something like an assemblage or a drawing together of a plurality. “…[T]he ‘production of novel togetherness’ is the ultimate notion embodied in the term ‘concresence.’ These ultimate notions of ‘production of novelty’ and of ‘concrete togetherness’ [i.e., a constellation] are inexplicable either in terms of higher universals or in terms of the components participating in the concrescence” (21-22). By contrast, this reference to a “disjunctive diversity” might be taken to refer to the manner in which the elements of this concresence can enter into a variety of different assemblages which themselves “concress” in different and divergent ways. These elements are disjunctive in the sense that they are not bound in one single harmonious unity. For instance, one and the same person can be a part of a political movement and their place of employment, contributing to the two higher unities in very different ways; indeed, ways that can even come into conflict with one another.

In a way that resonates well with N.Pepperell’s remarks, a few pages earlier Whitehead observes that,

Philosophy is the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity. Each actual occasion contributes to the circumstances of its origin additional formative elements deepening its own peculiar individuality… An actual individual, of such higher grade, has truck with the totality of things by reason of its sheer actuality; but it has attained its individual depth of being by a selective emphasis limited to its own purposes. The task of philosophy is to recover the totality obscured by the selection.

I like this a great deal – I’d need to look back at Whitehead, whom I haven’t read for ages, to get a clearer sense of how this vocabulary does, and doesn’t, map onto what I’m currently thinking, but, just taking what Sinthome has selected out for attention, these are tantalising and resonant concepts.

I also wanted to draw attention to a comment Sinthome reproduces from Melanie, who suggests:

I keep thinking abstract category is like a pure mathematical arabesque that creates an idealized figure, so that the figure becomes more recognizable than the unfolding process of variation. See the image below (at the beginning of the post): the boundaries are created out of the various bits of the unfolding process (in this case, calligraphic writing), yet in order to become recognizable as an image, the boundaries must at some point also delimit the act of unfolding. Writing or math or other forms of becoming cannot continue as a process if we want to create a recognizable image. The gap between the immediacy of the image and the legibility of the written text in an arabesque is like the gap between category and existence.

Melanie has here suggested the possibility that an abstraction might derive from something like the ossification (albeit temporary) of a dynamic form – so that the process of abstraction represents an interruption of dynamism. She has also suggested that the abstract figure acts to obscure its own constitutive (tacitly more concrete) processes. I have no objection to the possibility that a process of abstraction might instantiate itself in this way. I want to suggest, however – and here I must stress that I’m introducing a rather fragile and thin concept – that there may be other possibilities that sit alongside the one Melanie suggests. Specifically, I have been interested in theorising something that could perhaps be described as the inverse of the phenomenon Melanie highlights: a process in which diverse, heterogeneous, concrete practices interact to form a kind of dynamic abstraction – a repetitive, abstract pattern that unfolds through (and structures) recent historical time, via the continuous transformation of the concrete practices that generate it, with the result that the same pattern comes to be generated by ever-shifting constellations of concrete practices.

In this framework (as in the one Melanie suggests) both abstract and concrete dimensions of practice are equally “material”, and equally the products of collective human activity. In this instance, however, rather than the abstraction obscuring the concrete, abstract and concrete dimensions of practice mutually differentiate one another. To be very, very gestural (I apologise deeply for the form of presentation here, as this argument really requires a much more developed elaboration – I cannot stress strongly enough that I believe the actual historical dynamics to be much more complex and multidimensional than the simple dichotomy I am outlining here): in such a situation, practice has a dual character. The presence of an overarching pattern that is generated through concrete practices, but is not dependent on any specific concrete practice, has as one of its effects that of practically relativising concrete practices – rendering historically plausible that we should experience such practices as concrete – such that the perception of concreteness, heterogeneity, contingency, etc., emerges in and through the experience of the relationship of concrete practices with a particular kind of practiced abstraction. Our present sensitivity to the “social” or “cultural” – and our tendency to understand and practice social and cultural institutions in terms of “intersubjectivity” and contingency – begins to become historically plausible, I would suggest, through such a process of practical relativisation.

By contrast, the overarching historical pattern – experienced in its intrinsic, constitutive tension with the concrete practices that collective practice routinely demonstrates to be contingent and arbitrary human creations – is experienced (as it is) as impersonal in character – as not falling into the realm of concrete practices, and – since those practices are constituted as iconic of the “social” – as being asocial. In such a context, it begins to become plausible to experience and practice this impersonal pattern as “objective” – or, more accurately, as constitutive of our sense of the iconic qualitative characteristics that adhere to objective or asocial entities – because of the mutually-constitutive opposition between this abstract pattern as an unintended (nonconscious and impersonal) byproduct of practice, as it sits in dynamic tension with forms of practice that are demonstrably contingent and experienced and practiced as intersubjective. In this situation, the forms of thought and practice bound most integrally to the abstract pattern are difficult to grasp as social: they instead can plausibly appear as the “nothing” that remains behind when everything social and cultural has been stripped away (a phenomenon that has some interesting implications for how the natural, as well as the social, world comes to be conceptualised and practiced in the modern era). They can thus appear to be conceptual, rather than practical, abstractions.

When analysing such a phenomenon – and I say this recognising that it may be contentious to assert that such a phenomenon exists, and so for the moment operating simply at the level of the hypothetical – it would not be accurate to say that the abstract obscures the concrete. Instead, the abstract and the concrete interact in such a way as to obscure specific aspects of the other – while they also differentiate and accentuate specific aspects of the other in a mutually constitutive process. Speaking about the potential for critique with reference to such a context adds yet another layer to the analysis, and involves looking at what sorts of eddies and potentials are cast off by the dynamic tension between these concrete and abstract dimensions of practice – an observation that, I realise, is even more gestural than the highly gestural comments I’ve already been making in this post…

This is not an adequate formulation. At the best of times, it is difficult to speak about such things – and to voice them consistently and without implying a move to inappropriate notions of causality or the reduction of one aspect of practice to another. It doesn’t help matters that this time of the term – and this time of the night – is not the best of times. I hope readers can extend some patience with the confusions and inconsistent formulations that will inevitably result.

I must also stress that I intend this as a very narrow analysis (albeit one with a very large historical target): I am not trying to make general points about how we must understand assemblages in general, or the constitution of abstractions, or any such broad topic. I am basically sketching the very bare bones of a particular application of such a framework to a specific problem. I’m already wincing at the thought of publishing this… Hopefully it will be understood that these concepts are even rougher theory than I ordinarily outline here.

I’ll also apologise to Sinthome (and to Melanie!) for responding at such a tangent – and remind other readers to go to the original post at Larval Subjects, which is far better grounded than the inchoate speculations above.

The Negative of the Negative

Determinate negation seems to be in the air these days! I wanted to draw attention to a fantastic post over at Grundlegung, which picks up on Steve Shaviro’s concept of obliqueness in relation to a Hegelian notion of determinate negation. The take on determinate negation is subtly different from the one I’ve outlined below – Grundlegung unpacks the term in the following way:

To cast matters in Hegelian terms, it belongs to the broad class of negativity proper to the dialectic: it is determinate negation. For negation to be determinate is for it to have a content and so for it to be intentional, thus being the negation of one thing but not another.

By way of contrast, indeterminate negation would be negativity without ties to the specific character of the negated object. We might go on to delineate two possible modes of this indeterminate (or ‘mere‘) negation. The first of these would stem from the nature of the normative standard employed in the critique that precludes any real engagement with the determinate features of the object. Here, for example, we might group scepticism, nihilism and ‘Beautiful Soul’-ism, which in their own ways negate the object abstractly — a rejection pre-determined by the very co-ordinates the critique would take place within that entails that no matter what the object is it can never qualify as the True, the Good or the Righteous.

A second mode of mere negation would fail to treat the object with the requisite specificity through a failure to relate it to the conditions that make its appearance a necessity; an error Hegel introduces us to in the very first passages of the Phenomenology (Preface, 2). One of the multiple reasons why this negativity remains shallow is that it is left with meagre resources to explain falsity and semblance. That is, given that the object of critique has been discovered to be somehow inadequate, we are faced with the question of why no-one had realised this heretofore. Is it that people ‘just have’ been mistaken or are stupid or exceedingly gullible? The systematic regularity of such purported ‘errors’ calls for a more precise examination of the conditions undergirding them such that we do not remain content to wield an external critical standard, judging upon truth and falsity without accounting for the necessity (or for the faint-hearted, increased probability) of these so-called mistakes. This will involve critique in the task of determinate negation which proceeds to engage in a qualitative (i.e. more fully ‘contentful’) investigation of the negated object.

Much, much more in the original post – which (unlike my own intervention into this discussion) actually does manage to comment directly on the recent debate over Zizek’s review of 300. (Something about this discussion reminds me of the old joke about how the worst novels make the best movies – do the worst movie reviews spark the best blogspheric debates?)

When I have more time – a prospect that, unfortunately, is looking more and more like some kind of counterfactual ideal – I hope to be able to pick up on some of the concepts from this post, as well as return to Steve Shaviro’s posts, for a more detailed discussion of ways of conceptualising negation and critique.

Assembling an Abstraction

Sinthome at Larval Subjects has written a beautiful post on how it might be possible to approach theory as something other than a process of classification or conceptual abstraction – or, to frame the point another way: what might be required for immanent critique.

Sinthome begins by expressing a frustration that I have occasionally also voiced here: noting that “theory” is often equated with the construction of classificatory systems whose categories are extrinsic to whatever the theory then classifies. Sinthome argues that this classificatory approach to theory is intrinsically abstract, in a way that ensures that the theory cannot grasp the determinate properties of any actually existing entities:

Rather than seeing the category as a topological space capable of undergoing infinite variation while maintaining its structural identity, one variation is raised above the rest, becomes transcendent to all the rest, and becomes the measure of all the others. As a result, there emerges a gap between the category and existence.

Later in the post, Sinthome explores the essential arbitrariness of classificatory theory – and the ways in which such theory distracts from the development of concepts that capture immanent dynamics that are generated by, rather than imposed upon, the entities whose dynamics we are seeking to understand:

For instance, we might think of the bustle of people at New York’s Grand Central Station on any given day. This is a population. Here we have people of all types. There are an infinite number of ways we could sort them according to representational modes of thought working with concepts or intensions. We could sort them by gender, by religion, by ethnicity, by economic bracket, by jobs, by destinations, and so on.

However, the problem with all of these sorting strategies is that they remain abstract and exterior to the population itself. This sorting strategy relies on resemblance and analogy, as Deleuze outlines in the passage above. They impose external and foreign criteria on the immanent dynamics of the population.

Sinthome sees a critical potential in immanent theory that its classificatory counterpart does not possess. Citing Bergson and Deleuze, Sinthome advocates the development of a form of theory whose “concepts are identical to the thing itself”. Such an immanent theory, Sinthome suggests, would benefit from thinking of its objects of analysis by analogy to populations, which are, in Sinthome’s conception, historically bounded and materially manifest, heterogeneous and dynamic – and, most of all, existent entities:

A population is something that exists somewhere and at some time. Moreover, a population is populated by a heterogeneous diversity of elements, composed of different tendencies or vectors of movement.

Sinthome suggests appropriating Benjamin’s term constellation to describe the object of analysis of an immanent theory, and argues that only such an immanent approach holds genuinely critical potential, as it is uniquely poised to cast light on contradictory potentials within a constellation:

When we think of constellations, by contrast, we instead examine the immanent processes by which the elements that populate the population sort or group themselves into various patterns and forms of organization. That is, constellation thought seeks to investigate the tendencies that inhabit the population, and how these tendencies more or less inhabit the situation. Some tendencies will be small and fleeting, having little impact on the overall organization of the population in question. Other tendencies will be dominant within the population, seeking to dominate the rest or push the others into a particular form of organization. Occasionally there will be divergent tendencies within a population, creating a breaking point, a critical point, where we can no longer speak of a single population but must instead say the population has split, or where the dominant organization of the population undergoes a qualitative transformation such that it is no longer the same constellation as it was before (for instance, the shift from Feudalism to Capitalism).

It is clear that thinking in terms of populations and constellations is hostile to all “a priorism” of theory and those abstract modes of thought that fail to attend to actually existing conditions, populated by their potentials or tendencies, and their antagonisms. It is also clear that this conceptual deployment raises all sorts of questions about material logistics and strategics, focusing on how very small, almost imperceptible differences that are nearly invisible with respect to the dominant organizing dynamics or tendencies of a situation can be made into large, transformative differences.

Since I’ve omitted a great deal above, and also played around with the order of presentation, readers really should consult the original for a fuller exploration of these concepts. What I’d like to do here – and I can’t stress strongly enough that I won’t have time to do this issue justice – is just sketch some placeholders to capture some of the associations Sinthome’s post provoked for me. Hopefully I’ll have some time once the term has ended to return and pick up a few of these threads.

First – and this will hardly surprise Sinthome, who has referred often to Hegel’s critique of abstract thought – this critique of classificatory approaches to theory, and the move to immanent critique as an alternative, couldn’t help but remind me of Hegel.

In one of my favourite images from Phenomenology, Hegel famously dismisses classificatory theory as:

a synoptic index, like a skeleton with tickets stuck all over it, or like the rows of boxes kept shut and labelled in a grocer’s stall; and is as intelligible as either the one or the other. It has lost hold of the living nature of concrete fact; just as in the former case we have merely dry bones with flesh and blood all gone, and in the latter, there is shut away in those boxes something equally lifeless too. (51)

Hegel then counterposes as an alternative form of theory, a vision of “science” that seeks an immanent perspective on what is being analysed:

Science can become an organic system only by the inherent life of the notion. In science the determinateness, which was taken from the schema and stuck on to existing facts in external fashion, is the self directing inner soul of the concrete content. The movement of what is partly consists in becoming another to itself, and thus developing explicitly into its own immanent content; partly, again, it takes this evolved content, this existence it assumes, back into itself, i.e. makes itself into a moment, and reduces itself to simple determinateness. In the first stage of the process negativity lies in the function of distinguishing and establishing existence; in this latter return into self, negativity consists in the bringing about of determinate simplicity. It is in this way that the content shows its specific characteristic not to be received from something else, and stuck on externally; the content gives itself this determinate characteristic, appoints itself of its own initiative to the rank of a moment and to a place in the whole. The pigeon-holing process of understanding retains for itself the necessity and the notion controlling the content, that which constitutes the concrete element, the actuality and living process of the subject-matter which it labels: or rather, understanding does not retain this for itself, on the contrary, understanding fails to know it. For if it had as much insight as that, it would surely show that it had. It is not even aware of the need for such insight; if it were, it would drop its schematizing process, or at least would no longer be satisfied to know by way of a mere table of contents. A table of contents is all that understanding gives, the content itself it does not furnish at all.

If the specific determination (say even one like magnetism) is one that in itself is concrete or actual, it all the same gets degraded into something lifeless and inert, since it is merely predicated of another existing entity, and not known as an immanent living principle of this existence; nor is there any comprehension of how in this entity its intrinsic and peculiar way of expressing and producing itself takes effect. This, the very kernel of the matter, formal understanding leaves to others to add later on. Instead of making its way into the inherent content of the matter in hand, understanding always takes a survey of the whole, assumes a position above the particular existence about which it is speaking, i.e. it does not see it at all. True scientific knowledge, on the contrary, demands abandonment to the very life of the object, or, which means the same thing, claims to have before it the inner necessity controlling the object, and to express this only. Steeping itself in its object, it forgets to take that general survey, which is merely a turning of knowledge away from the content back into itself. But being sunk into the material in hand, and following the course that such material takes, true knowledge returns back into itself, yet not before the content in its fullness is taken into itself, is reduced to the simplicity of being a determinate characteristic, drops to the level of being one aspect of an existing entity, and passes over into its higher truth. By this process the whole as such, surveying its entire content, itself emerges out of the wealth wherein its process of reflection seemed to be lost. (53)

Hegel’s vision of immanent critique, however, relies on a rejection of the ontological distinction between subject and object (such that immanent knowledge is posited to be possible, because such knowledge involves the recognition of what consciousness has externalised from itself), and then on the notion of a necessary, immanent, developmental logic (such that forms of consciousness that do not express Hegel’s system do not have to be rejected via an appeal to some form of “objective” truth, but can rather be relativised as partial and incomplete forms of consciousness):

The more the ordinary mind takes the opposition between true and false to be fixed, the more is it accustomed to expect either agreement or contradiction with a given philosophical system, and only to see reason for the one or the other in any explanatory statement concerning such a system. It does not conceive the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive evolution of truth; rather, it sees only contradiction in that varietv. The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole. But contradiction as between philosophical systems is not wont to be conceived in this way; on the other hand, the mind perceiving the contradiction does not commonly know how to relieve it or keep it free from its onesidedness, and to recognize in what seems conflicting and inherently antagonistic the presence of mutually necessary moments. (2)


The systematic development of truth in scientific form can alone be the true shape in which truth exists. To help to bring philosophy nearer to the form of science-that goal where it can lay aside the name of love of knowledge and be actual knowledge-that is what I have set before me. The inner necessity that knowledge should be science lies in its very nature; and the adequate and sufficient explanation for this lies simply and solely in the systematic exposition Of philosophy itself. The external necessity, however, so far as this is apprehended in a universal way, and apart from the accident of the personal element and the particular occasioning influences affecting the individual, is the same as the internal: it lies in the form and shape in which the process of time presents the existence of its moments. To show that the time process does raise philosophy to the level of scientific system would, therefore, be the only true justification of the attempts which aim at proving that philosophy must assume this character; because the temporal process would thus bring out and lay bare the necessity of it, nay, more, would at the same time be carrying out that very aim itself. (5)

For Hegel, determinate negation (Sinthome probably thought I was never going to get back to this question…) involves this kind of immanent exposition of how a more adequate concept emerges through a necessary developmental unfolding of the notion. Competing forms of thought are therefore not dismissed abstractly – by arguing that they are “wrong” or result from mere errors of thinking. Instead, they are positioned as necessary moments within a developmental process that has ultimately generated a concept more adequate to its notion – a concept that contradicts competing forms of thought, but that also stands in a necessary relation with them.

The question – and this takes me back to Sinthome’s post, and also to my own appropriation of the concept of determinate negation, which, I must admit, is not terribly Hegelian – is how we conceptualise immanent critique, if we wish to reject, or at least not make an a priori commitment to, the notion of a necessary developmental logic: how can we make sense of the existence of the forms of theory of which we are critical – how can we conceptualise them as something other than mere errors of thinking – while incorporating something like Sinthome’s insight that really existing entities might be best conceptualised as arbitrary configurations. How can we make sense of immanent critique in a context in which we have come to experience our world as aleatory and heterogeneous – to be adequate to the sorts of historical insights expressed in one of Sinthome’s earlier posts:

Just as Parmenides begins from the axiom that being is one and proceeds from there (and is followed in this by much of the philosophical tradition), Badiou asks us to begin from the premise that being is inconsistent multiplicity.

I am happy to follow Badiou in this axiom as I believe it is the central axiom of that episteme characterizing contemporary thought. Whether we are speaking of Heideggerian ontological difference, Derridean differance and dissemination, Deleuzian different/ciation, dynamic systems theory, Foucaultian archaeology and genealogy, or Lyotardian discourse analysis and differends, and so on, the thought of our time begins with the premise that being is difference or multiplicity, or that the one (whether in the form of wholes, substances, or entities) is an effect or result.

I hope I am not overextrapolating to suggest that the concepts Sinthome is unfolding in the current post – of constellations, populations and assemblages – are intended to be adequate to the ontological sensibilities discussed in this quotation. The question for immanent critique then becomes how we have taught ourselves such things about being – or, to translate the question into the vocabulary of Sinthome’s current post, what really existing configuration generates, as part of its process of auto-organisation and sorting phenomena of the world, these particular forms of perception and thought?

The same question applies to those forms of thought Sinthome criticises – although a full expression of this point, I would suggest, would need to alter slightly the terms in which Sinthome formulates this critique. Sinthome argues:

There is an abstract and Platonizing tendency of thought that is difficult to avoid. Whenever faced with a phenomenon we ask the question what is it, and immediately set about trying to find a category, concept, form, or Idea to which the phenomenon belongs. The category or form thus becomes transcendent to the phenomenon in question, such that the category doesn’t function simply as a sortal or descriptor of the phenomenon, but instead becomes a normative measure of the phenomenon, determining the degree to which the phenomenon approaches the Ideal set up by the category.

A bit later, Sinthome underscores the need to reject such forms of abstracting thought, explicitly contrasting it to thought that orients itself to an existing constellation:

Of specific importance to this notion [of the constellation] is its emphasis on the arbitrary nature of the configuration and its status as an assemblage. What a constellation seeks to capture is the organization of a really existing configuration, rather than an abstract thought divorced from really existing configurations. (bold text mine)

Tacitly, this formulation is not completely adequate to the framework Sinthome has outlined, which would require an analysis of the constellations or assemblages that give rise to such abstract thought – and, for that matter, to the alternative form of thought that would be oriented to really existent phenomena. Such analyses, however, are difficult to provide within the confines of a blog post and, in any event, the point of this post was to outline concepts, not to put these concepts into play against any particular concrete example to which they might be applied. My comments here are therefore simply placeholders noting where Sinthome’s concepts would point over time.

What I did want to suggest, though – and I must necessarily be very gestural here – is that it may be worth considering what peculiar characteristics an assemblage might need to possess, for it to generate particular kinds of abstract thought as one aspect of its distinctive forms of self-organisation. This is, as I mentioned in another discussion over at Larval Subjects, what I take Marx to have been attempting in Capital. What is interesting in Marx’s analysis is that he doesn’t interpret the abstract forms of thought he analyses as conceptual – as something that result from generalising or abstracting away from more concrete, really existent, phenomena. Instead, he interprets them as plausible expressions of forms of abstract social practice: Marx’s work, as I understand it, suggests the possibility that abstract forms of thought might express a dimension of social practice that enacts an on-the-ground indifference to the determinate specificity of concrete entities – a dimension of social practice that appears as it is, abstract.

In such a case, perversely, only abstract theoretical categories would be appropriate, as the really existing configuration possesses practically abstract dimensions – it generates what I generally call real abstractions. Of course, in this case, those abstract categories would only themselves be adequately grasped once they were no longer understood – as they tend phenomenologically to present themselves – as conceptual abstractions or generalisations obtained by stripping away the specificities of concrete experience. Instead, certain forms of abstraction would have to be recognised as the historical, material specificity of a particular dimension of concrete practice – a recognition that would entail a form of theoretical work like what Sinthome proposes, which would seek to uncover the way in which a particular form of abstraction was assembled through determinate forms of practice.

To return to Sinthome’s question of what I mean by “determinate negation”: as with most of the categories I appropriate from Hegel, and from the critical theoretic traditions that flow out of his work, I deliberately mean this term in two senses. In a broad sense, I understand a “determinate negation” as a form of critique that doesn’t reject other forms of thought as “mere” errors of thinking, but instead explains why those forms of thought might be plausible – and also why, in spite of that plausibility, those forms of thought should still be rejected. This form of critique is related to the exploration of the nature of a specific context – in the case of my own work, to an exploration of certain very abstract historical patterns generated by our global social assemblage – and to the development of a self-reflexive theory that can point to contradictory tendencies generated by the auto-organisation of that global assemblage, so that the theory can relativise dominant tendencies within this assemblage by pointing to the ongoing generation of other determinate possibilities.

In a narrow sense, however, I also suspect that there is a peculiar form of practical negation that inheres in our global assemblage itself – such that we often (plausibly, but incorrectly) perceive ourselves to be engaging in conceptual abstractions – arriving at concepts by generalising away from the qualitative determinacy of our concrete experiences – when instead these abstractions actually are the qualitative determinacy of one dimension of our concrete experiences. My instinct is that something deeply practical in origin is disguising itself as mere thought – and attracting criticism for being mere thought – such that we symptomatically then seek transformation by trying to penetrate the abstraction, moving to something that looks less abstract, to something that matches our concept of the concrete. Instead, I think we should be doing something more like realising that our distinctive form of abstraction is already concrete – already grounded in a form of practice whose significance we repetitively overlook, as we focus instead on penetrating the abstraction to unveil and overturn forms of practice that are more recognisably “social” or “intersubjective”, and that we tend to conceptualise as more “concrete” or more “real”.

My work is aimed at this real abstraction – at understanding the assemblage that generates it, for I regard it as every bit as aleatory in origin, every bit as contingent, as the definition of assemblage would suggest. I also, though, regard this dimension of social practice as incredibly difficult to see – because it hides in plain sight, easily confused for mere thought, for mere concept, and therefore difficult to point back to the distinctive forms of practice to which it is, in spite of all our impulses to dismiss it as conceptual error, the adequate expression. To unearth these forms of practice, it helps to seize another Hegelian concept – that things appear as they are – and to ask ourselves what things might be, that they appear in such an abstract way. The answer to this question is, in the narrow sense, what I mean by determinate negation.

Updated to add: Sinthome has posted a response continuing this conversation over at Larval Subjects.

To Die For

So L Magee assisted with one of my planning theory tutorial sessions earlier today, and I returned the favour this evening by dropping in on one of LM’s quantitative methods sessions. I’m certain LM found my presence supportive and ever-helpful. LM never tells me such things, of course, but I’m sure that’s due to some personal reticence about expressing deep emotion.

At any rate, during the session, LM decided to answer a student’s question about expected values and the chi-square test with an example that started, “Suppose you roll a 5-sided die…” LM tried valiantly to progress beyond this starting point, but the example was just… distracting.

“I’m sorry,” one student objected, “but I have to visualise these things. What does a 5-sided die look like?”

LM tried to deflect the question – it’s a hypothetical; Dungeons and Dragons must have all kinds of strange dice; etc. But the student really wanted to know. You could see everyone in the room trying – and failing – to visualise such a thing. The hapless visual learner finally gave up and proposed that we substitute some sort of random spinning dial in our hypothetical example. The tute moved on, but I just couldn’t. I kept flashing back to this discussion, bursting into erratic, poorly-muffled giggling fits at unpredictable intervals while LM was trying to explain other statistical concepts. As I said, I’m sure LM finds me supportive and ever-helpful.

And since I’m supportive and ever-helpful, a gift! LM, the next time this happens in your tutorial, you can show your students this:

5-sided die

Green Activism

L Magee did me the favour of leading one of my class discussions this morning, giving me the chance to watch from the sidelines. The discussion revolved around Sandercock’s historical survey of various progressive, utopian, and radical approaches to planning. I felt just a bit guilty, realising that, when I asked LM to do this, there might have been some reasonable expectation that perhaps this discussion might revolve around… er… radicalism in some form of another. Instead, LM wound up on the receiving end of my students’ rather creative attempts to extract some practical tools from radical planning theories, so that they could apply these in their private sector consultancy work.

LM struggled valiantly to turn the conversation back to the motives or goals of various schools of radical planning, finally offering the explicit challenge: “But – don’t you think that consultants sort of sit outside the radical planning traditions? That they aren’t really trying to represent groups in the community?”

To which one student cooly responded: “Not necessarily. I mean, I know we’ve represented community groups. But… You know… Community groups with money.”