Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

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.

5 responses to “Assembling an Abstraction

  1. Pingback: Rough Theory-- The Critical Edition « Larval Subjects .

  2. Pingback: Indeterminate Thoughts on Determinate Negation « Grundlegung

  3. Pingback: » The Negative of the Negative

  4. Pingback: Rough Theory-- Placeholders for Future Thought « Larval Subjects .

  5. Pingback: » Holding Patterns

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