Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

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.


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