Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Random Thoughts on Difference and Consensus

I’m thinking at a positively glacial pace at the moment, distracted by endless marking and other matters. In the strange half-life of thought that has resulted from this, I’m finding various fragments of recent discussions bouncing off of one another in my memory – largely random, but I think there’s an associative connection somewhere there. I won’t be able to tease out any useful connection here, but perhaps I can preserve a few of the associations for later, more productive, reflection.

A couple nights ago, L Magee poked and prodded me away from my marking to attend a very nice presentation on Habermasian theory, which was followed by a very productive discussion. Strangely, I’m finding that the issue that occupied my attention on the night – a debate over the role of anthropological universals in Habermas’ framework – is not what seems to keep to popping into my thoughts since then. Instead, what my thoughts keep returning to is a phrase used repeatedly by the speaker during both the formal presentation and the subsequent discussion – the claim that Habermas’ framework is designed to illuminate “how can we talk to one another, instead of using violence”. The speaker was suggesting that, by grounding the potential for consensus, Habermas’ approach has also grounded the potential to coordinate our collective lives without violence – positing that these two processes are one and the same, such that grounding one necessarily grounds the other.

The final question of the night was a passionate riposte from a Lacanian critic, challenging the opposition of communication and violence that had structured the talk, pointing to the risk of violence within acts of communication, and challenging the assumption that all dimensions of human interaction and experience could be rationally grasped without a remainder that would escape such a process. The speaker responded by noting the similarity of this position with Adorno’s, but argued that Habermas viewed the positing of such a remainder as a concept pointing tacitly to an an sich – and therefore still bound to a subject-object dualism Habermas rejects. In this reading, transparency evidently follows from the rejection of the subject-object dualism – and the potential for transparency is then posited as the key to the transcendence of violence. The evening concluded with these thoughts still ringing in the air.

For the moment, I’ll leave aside any kind of thorough analysis of this exchange, or of the event as a whole. I don’t personally believe that a move beyond subject-object dualism necessarily entails some sort of claim to universal transparency, or that attempts to speak about the non-identity within identity, as Adorno might have phrased the concept of a remainder, are necessarily gestures toward an an sich. I’ll leave these points aside, however, as I don’t believe this is why my thoughts keep returning to this final exchange. Instead, I think that something about this exchange is reminding me of discussion threads that have floated around this corner of the blogosphere recently, particularly in a series of comments relating to our capacity to desire difference. It may seem slightly perverse to group together a set of discussions about whether it is possible to desire difference, with the issue of whether it is desirable to achieve Habermasian consensus, but this seems to be where my, admittedly rather tired and disjoint, associations are leading at the moment… The common connection seems to be a certain underlying question, revolving around the issue of whether some new kind of personal or intersubjective connection is really what is at stake, when we contemplate what insights recent historical experiences might have allowed us to achieve.

The discussion of the capacity to desire difference originated with a powerful personal reflection by Sinthome at Larval Subjects:

Of course I can say abstractly that I desire difference, that I aim for difference, that I would like to promote difference. But the simple fact that I, for the most part, encounter each and every person that I talk to as being mad reveals, I think, the truth. I confuse the symptoms of others– or better yet, the sinthomes of others, their unique way of getting jouissance –with insanity. I am confusing difference with madness. What I am interpreting as madness– in my bones, in my gut, in the fibers of my being –is in fact difference. And, of course, if I think all of you are mad in your desires, your fixations, your obsessions, your persistant fears, themes, and anxieties, then this must mean that I believe myself to be sane. That’s right, I must believe myself to be normal and healthy. Yet in reflecting on my day to day life, with the way I obsess, the things that I fixate on, the dark fantasies that sometimes inhabit me, the way I don’t allow myself to sleep or enjoy, the varied forms of abuse I heap on my body, and so on, I can hardly say that I am a model of health. No, I don’t have a particularly nice sinthome. I don’t suppose that this is a sinthome that many would want or care to exchange with me. Of course, as Lacan says in Seminar 23: The Sinthome, we are only ever interested in our own symptoms… Which is another way of saying that we never hear the symptoms of others. The symptoms of others are always filtered through our own symptoms.

Perhaps this is “progress”. Perhaps the fact that it is dawning on me that what I so often consider a bit of madness in other persons is really difference or an encounter with otherness qua otherness, is in a way, a traversing of the fantasy, such that I’m recognizing that the frame through which I view the world is just that: a frame. Yet no matter how ashamed I am to admit it as it thoroughly undermines any “theory cred” I might posses (which is scant, to be sure), I wonder if I will ever be able to desire difference. It is one thing to recognize that what one takes as madness is an alternative organization of jouissance. It is quite another thing to find the other’s jouissance tolerable or desirable.

Joseph Kugelmass then picked up on these personal reflections, spinning them in a more political and social direction, and asking whether difference is something that needs to be desired – at least in its substantive manifestations – or whether the issue is more that difference needs to become instead something like an object of indifference:

I was reminded of a marvelous paraphrase of The Republic, from Jacques Derrida’s book on democratic states, Rogues:

[In a democracy one finds] all sorts of people, a greater variety than anywhere else. Whence the multicolored beauty of democracy. Plato insists as much on the beauty as on the medley of colors. Democracy seems—and this is its appearing, if not its appearance and its simulacrum—the most beautiful, the most seductive of constitutions. Its beauty resembles that of a multi- and brightly colored garment. The seduction matters here; it provokes; it is provocative in this “milieu” of sexual difference, where roués and voyous roam about. (26)

In his own roundabout fashion, Derrida follows Plato’s example, but inverts him: Derrida will desire the presence of rogues and vagabonds, will insist roguishly on seduction and shiftlessness, and will hint at debaucheries and even at insurrections. All of which confirms, for us, that democracy is, in LS’s apt phrase, a process of desiring the difference of the Other.

I wonder whether it is reasonable to establish a democracy on these grounds; or whether, in fact, democracy is a best understood as a matter of indifference….

Thus one discovers, at the heart of the democratic principle, not the spectacle of seductive differences, but rather the matter of indifference, as the phrase is used in everyday conversation. It does not mean insensibility, or a lack of interest in what other people volunteer. It is simply a limit placed on what concerns me. I cease expecting others to be fully transparent to me, and I cease to expect them to create environments in which my beliefs predominate. This is the essence of the right to privacy, of toleration, and of the fair exercise of authority.

Interestingly, with this final paragraph Joseph’s concerns react back on the Habermasian project as much as they might on Derrida. Joseph here suggests that perhaps the desire to achieve consensus and the desire to value specific forms of difference might equally involve too great a mutual implicatedness in one another’s lives, too strong a drive to establish an intersubjective connection. Instead, Joseph seems to suggest, what is needed is a greater sense of boundaries between ourselves and our desires, and the selves and desires of others. There’s a certain irony in this position, from a Habermasian perspective – a lovely suggestion that perhaps it’s the systems world after all, with its posited ability to coordinate the consequences of human actions without consensus, that might provide the model for an emancipatory politics – however alienated the form in which this model has become historically manifest…

I’ll apologise here to both Joe and Sinthome, as I’m not trying at all to suggest that either of them was trying to think such thoughts – I’m not even certain that I think such thoughts. For present purposes, I’m simply trying to tease out what’s been nagging me about these various conversational strands – why my tired thoughts seem to have grouped them, as though they might be striking at some common problem. I’m very conscious that these reflections may not have managed to achieve even this modest goal.

7 responses to “Random Thoughts on Difference and Consensus

  1. Joseph Kugelmass May 11, 2007 at 6:33 pm


    A couple of opening questions, and then we can see where the conversation goes…

    You’ve excerpted and represented what I wrote very lucidly, which is terrific. Are you putting me in a camp with Luhmann, when you refer to the “systems world”? I’m not opposed to it, necessarily; could you expand upon that?

    Also — and forgive me if this is an outgrowth of reading nothing but Walter Pater for two days — but my initial reaction to the Habermasian’s quote is purely stylistic. “How can we talk to one another, instead of using violence” is the sort of question that feels, frankly, a little empty, and a little like something you’d hear on Sesame Street. Your way of opening the discussion onto the question of new social networks makes sense to me. But when I try to go back to the quote to wrangle with it, I find it to be too much like ordinary cautions. If this kind of democratic earnestness was enough on its own, wouldn’t we be there by now?

  2. N Pepperell May 11, 2007 at 7:28 pm

    LOL! LM and I actually had exactly the same reaction to the “how can we talk to one another without violence” comment. (There was some wry comment from LM that I can now no longer remember – perhaps LM can recapture it for me – but the Sesame Street analogy pretty much suffices. ;-P)

    For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t use this sort of phrase to characterise what Habermas is doing – but, in this post, I wasn’t really trying to worry about whether the speaker had gotten Habermas “right”, but just to provide a sort of context for why I was thinking about these issues at this moment, given that the blog discussion to which I’m drawing attention took place a bit ago. And this particular phrase – which was used with a kind of mantra-like repetitiveness on the night – provided a kind of opening frame for the critical comments that ended the session – for better or worse, it was associated in my memory with the criticisms it elicited, and has therefore made its way into the somewhat disordered narrative above…

    I think why your post struck me originally (and apologies that I couldn’t really articulate this when I tried to respond at your site – I was particularly tired at the time), is that I’ve been wrestling in my own work with the issue of how best to theorise impersonal sorts of social connections – and then how to understand the relationship between this sort of theory, and various other sorts of theory that focus on issues of intersubjectivity.

    I’ve been preoccupied with this since another regular commentator here – rob – prodded me a while back on a bad habit I had fallen into, of using the term “intersubjective” as though this is some kind of straight-forward synonym for the word “social” or “collective”. These terms are really not synonymous at all – and in my work it’s particularly and specifically important to maintain a distinction between the concept of “intersubjective” and the concept of “social” or “collective”. So, basically, rob had caught me out being sloppy – and caught me out in an extremely productive way, as this really is a case of my needing to learn how to communicate more clearly a distinction that I know is important in my work…

    In any event: your post struck me because it seemed to suggest that a focus on intersubjective recognition might be misplaced – not because it’s undesirable, but simply because it’s sort of beside the point for tolerant coexistence. Your post caused me at the time to think of a rather vast sociological literature (much of which is Habermasian at some remove) targeted to how we might achieve, in a post-traditional context, something like the shared worldview that is purported to have existed doxically in less dynamic societies. Your post suggests an alternative – that a post-traditional context teaches us that, in fact, we don’t particularly need to share a worldview. This is, of course, not an uncommon criticism of Habermas – but what intrigued me was your aiming this criticism at a very non-Habermasian theoretical space. It had simply never occurred to me, until reading your post, that it might be possible to posit a kind of perverse commonality underlying the surface conflicts between advocates of Habermasian consensus and advocates that we should desire difference. Since I always love perverse similarities underlying conflictual theoretical systems, I thought this was a beautiful insight.

    In talking about the “systems world” in relation to your comments, I’m not trying to make any kind of strong claim. Habermas uses a very simple form of systems theory, and it was of his version, rather than Luhmann’s, that I was thinking when I wrote this post. In Habermas’ framework, the systems world is a space in which the consequences of individuals’ actions are coordinated, impersonally, without the need to achieve intersubjective consensus. Within these spheres (the market and the legal system, essentially), individuals orient themselves strategically and engage in goal-directed activity, treating one another as means. Habermas views the emergence of such spaces as a historical “advance” when it comes to managing material resources, but argues that systemic forms of coordination have sprawled beyond their appropriate boundaries (driven by capitalism), and have “colonised” other dimensions of social life – dimensions that involve symbolic or cultural, rather than material, reproduction. These symbolic dimensions become impoverished as a result, resulting in various pathologies. So, for Habermas, the symbolic “lifeworld” is, essentially, the standpoint of critique, and intersubjective recognition must be promoted, in order to achieve emancipatory ends.

    With reference to this framework, I enjoyed your suggestion that maybe more of a push for intersubjective recognition really isn’t what’s called for. The reality is that I wouldn’t seriously gloss your comments as a push for what Habermas thinks of as a “system” – but your comments could be taken to suggest that Habermas’ “systems world” may have generated (in whatever alienated form) a vision of social interaction whose impersonal character possesses unintentional emancipatory dimensions. Habermas associates the impersonal character of the systems world intrinsically with instrumental reason – your post, on some level, suggests that it might actually be possible to think impersonal interactions in a somewhat different way – so that perhaps the issue isn’t to choose between treating people as objects we can manipulate, or treating them as subjects with which we desperately seek to identify, but rather transcending this dichotomy by moving into some third space, one constituted by the mutual indifference of non-identical subjects who have accepted the boundaries of their ability to achieve identity.

    Or something like that. ;-P

    Sorry if this is very unclear – and apologies again for using your post in this way. I’m mainly trying on concepts for size, and may not have a very clear sense of what use could be made of them…

  3. Joseph Kugelmass May 12, 2007 at 5:08 am

    NP, this makes a lot more sense; I absolutely agree that the impersonality of the Habermasian system is one of its great strengths. That’s probably why, when I first encountered him a few years back, I felt curiously neutral towards his writings. I agreed with everything I read, and yet it seemed to be such straightforward liberalism that it didn’t excite me.

    In the time since, my reaction to him has become more complex, because of my concern that his project does try to produce consensus in every situation — that, in fact, consensus is fundamental to his understanding of language, and that his philosophy was proving incapable of understanding its own proper arena and limits. To take merely one example, there are many relationships between friends, spouses, and colleagues where private or semi-private in-jokes and a prioris help to confirm the bond. This is language without violence, and highly functional at that, but it is the opposite of consensus, and would be out-of-place at the imaginary Town Hall meeting to which Habermasians constantly refer.

  4. N Pepperell May 12, 2007 at 10:00 am

    Exactly. The issue, in a sense, is: if we want to argue that one of the distinctive aspects of modernity is its corrosive effect on “mechanical solidarity” – on the sorts of shared worldviews that could arise because the relatively static social context made it more likely for people to have similar experiences and think about those experiences in a similar way – then what lessons do we want to draw from this shift.

    Classical sociology worries about the loss of meaning and anomie that results from this shift, and then either tries to suggest new ways of reconstituting meaning in a post-traditional context (Durkheim), or accepts that this is no longer possible for us, but views this as a tragic situation (Weber). Habermas here falls in the Durkheimian line – although he is willing to accept the lack of shared worldviews in relation to material production. Habermas’ position relies on some hard ontological distinctions between things that are “okay” to manage instrumentally (manufacturing cars, for example), and things that are not “okay” to manage instrumentally (rearing children, for example) – as though it’s easily possible to differentiate elements of social life that must be reproduced “symbolically”, from elements that only require to be reproduced “materially”. Various critics have, of course, gone after the plausibility of these ontological distinctions…

    Still, there’s a complicated lingering issue – Habermas’ framework is, among other things, designed to explain anomie in a way in which provides a potential sense of how this problem might be resolved. One could, of course, reject the notion of anomie, or argue that this is a transitional problem, or adopt a tragic stance toward it – arguing that it is an evitable downside of otherwise desirable transformations. I would gather, though, from another recent discussion you’ve had with Sinthome, that you would regard at least some of the sorts of phenomena that get grouped under the category of anomie as potentially resolvable dysfunctions – as the results of aspects of modernity that are contingent and can therefore potentially be transformed.

    I’m sympathetic to this – and I’m also sympathetic to your suggestion that consensus ain’t the cure to these sorts of problems… But this still leaves us with an unresolved puzzle as to how, once we reject Habermas’ framework, we would address some of these problems that his approach is designed to address.

    This is why, as I suggested above, I think it would ultimately be important to come up with some way of talking about something like Habermas’ systems world as something that may suggest potentials – but specifically in alienated form – such that we’re not specifically suggesting a fuller realisation of something that exists, in the form in which it currently exists, but are instead talking about something like lessons inadvertantly learned, which can then be seized in ways that might have very little to do with the conditions of their emergence.

    This also distinguishes this kind of critique from, say, the position of someone like Hayek – whose advocacy of the market is actually quite strongly motivated by the question of how to minimise violence and maximise the potential for difference, via impersonal forms of social coordination.

    But I’ll have to apologise for how I’ve written this – I’m being too condensed, and shorthanding too many concepts by naming authors vaguely associated with them. Apologies if this has made the comment very unclear.

    But yes: programmatically – how can we think about the advantages of impersonal forms of social coordination while, to add a new wrinkle, deciding how we want to address issues of anomie – and does perhaps some implementation of the concept of alienation assist with this? Or something like that…

  5. Pingback: Blacklisted! « The Kugelmass Episodes

  6. Joseph Kugelmass May 14, 2007 at 2:13 pm

    Taking, as a starting point, something like the phenomenon of madness, it’s easy to discover the limitations of the Habermasian project. I haven’t read as much in Habermas as I would like, but let’s assume that he does say things like, “Car manufacture, but not child-rearing, should be treated instrumentally.” Well, in order to manufacture a car, you have to have workers — are they all going to be treated instrumentally? Clearly they shouldn’t be, and yet their labor does have an instrumental function. A state or nation can assemble to vote into being mental health services, but there is still a question whether the subject of treatment is being treated for the instrumental reason of security and productivity, or for the ethical reason of compassion.

    It appears as though Habermas’s desire to separate instrumental from non-instrumental processes is going to fall hopelessly afoul of the self-objectifying nature of action.

    Initially, my reaction is that circumstances of maximal political concern can create anomie, but can’t prevent it. I don’t think that I would try to legislate de-alienation; rather, the purpose of legislation should be to create space for workable organic social networks by excluding things like hate crimes or exploitation. Any legislation that seemed to be reasonable and aimed at reducing alienation would probably just be corrective of an intolerable existing state of oppression. Thus, for example, the regulation of employment and industry.

  7. N Pepperell May 14, 2007 at 3:23 pm

    I’m not sure, actually, that the phenomenon of madness touches on Habermas’ project in any particular way: his system doesn’t require that he posit that everyone be rational, or that all (or, in fact, any) communications proceed according to the ideals he tries to ground. On the one hand, these ideals are critical counter-factuals, so they aren’t really intended to be realisable. On the other hand, ontologically they’re intersubjective, rather than resident solely in individuals – although his work does include a long discussion about, e.g., Piagetan psychology that might suggest otherwise, so it’s not an unreasonable reading to individualise them. It’s just that the overarching thrust of his argument has to do with the demystification and rationalisation of the cultural contents of the lifeworld, rather than with the orientations of individuals.

    Your question about what we should do with those workers who inconveniently clutter the systems world is, I think, more on the mark. Of course, I’m the one who inflected Habermas’ ontological distinctions in this way – so perhaps I have straw-manned his position and set him up for an unfair critique (although critiques exactly like the one you’re making above are often made).

    I suppose, if we wanted to be more generous than my example allowed, we could argue that he believes that only market exchange operates like a system – so perhaps the shopfloor itself is not a realm of instrumental reason. It is probably a fair reading to say that he interprets capitalism in terms of the market (which is, of course, the most common way to define it across theoretical traditions).

    Of course, this places us back in the same terrain Marx criticises in Capital – pointing out that labour power is one of those things exchanged instrumentally on the market… And of course Habermas also tries to make law into a system… So I think it’s somewhat hard to avoid the sense that there are problems with these ontological distinctions…

    Habermas seems to translate the problem of anomie into the problem of the impoverishment of the lifeworld – encompassing, I gather, phenomena like the flattening of culture and identity into consumption. Within his categories, this gets inflected as an intrusion of capitalism into the lifeworld, with the result that the lifeworld becomes hollowed out and impoverished – unable to generate the rich symbolic resources required for cultural reproduction. This is how he picks up on an old Frankfurt School theme, of how the self comes to be sacrificed in the name of self-preservation: in Habermas, this becomes a story about how material reproduction comes to usurp a role that can only properly be played by cultural or symbolic reproduction. So this is why he thinks he needs these sorts of hard ontological distinctions – to explain where the boundaries properly ought to be drawn.

    I should add, if it’s not clear, that I’ve never found Habermas’ position persuasive – this is one reason your post resonated for me, in that it articulated some of the issues I’ve long had with Habermas, but directed this critique at a non-Habermasian theoretical tradition.

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