Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: June 2007


Frank Pasquale over at Concurring Opinions passes on the following apocryphal, but resonant, anecdote:

I once heard a forlorn graduate student put a $20 bill in her dissertation in 1978, and when she returned to campus 20 years later to see if anyone had read her magnum opus, the bill was still there.

The rest of the post discusses bizarre footnotes left in law review articles – whether in the belief that no one will read the article, or in the hope that, if they do, the footnote will motivate them to comment on it…

Word of the Day

I’ve just been marking a student essay that uses a word I haven’t heard for a long time: adhocracy. I suspect I’ve been living in one of these for a while now…

Apologies for the very infrequent updates recently – it’s a very busy end to an unusually heavy term, and so posting may remain a bit light for a bit. I’m eager to get back to more regular writing, once the marking slog has ended…

Marking Texts

From an email exchange with L Magee, a comment on the impact of marking on everything else one reads at the time:

I find it attractive when someone attempts, and for the most part succeeds, in conveying this kind of syncretic understanding of multiple, in-themselves-complex traditions. Usually not to be emulated of course – it presupposes both impressive scholarship and some brazen arrogance towards not one but multiple “traditions” – since today I’m in belated marking mode, this takes the form of a note in the margins like “Wonderfully impressive scope – but perhaps you’re taking on too much here?”… and then realise the author is not student X but Habermas…

I do this too…


L Magee successfully completed the charity half-marathon discussed here a couple of weeks back. LM reports:

I completed it – can’t walk, can’t talk, of course, but otherwise feeling fine…

I wanted both to congratulate LM, and to repost the link to OxFam, for anyone interested in making a donation to commemorate LM’s efforts.

Material Relations

Sinthome from Larval Subjects has mirrored the entire monster comment I wrote yesterday, as my latest contribution to an incredibly productive discussion below with Joseph Kugelmass and Ryan/Aless. This discussion was itself begun in response to R/A’s post on people as means of production over at massthink, and has led to such productive and rich questions and comments from both Joseph and Ryan/Aless, that it has been distracting me from introducing new posts these past few days.

Sinthome adds a new layer to this discussion, juxtaposing reflections on Deleuze and Guattari, The Communist Manifesto, and Sinthome’s own recent work on assemblages. Sinthome’s post is fantastic, and quite difficult to excerpt in a way that does justice to the movement of the post – I’ll reproduce one teaser here, but you really should read the post as a whole (just keep scrolling past my stuff: Sinthome’s argument is at the bottom…):

This week the reading group in which I participate began reading Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. As I was introducing the material and what Deleuze and Guattari were up to with their synthesis of psychoanalysis, Marx, and Nietzsche, one of the participants piped up and said something along the lines of

Wait, for Deleuze and Guattari schizophrenia as a process is “good”, but capitalism is schizophrenic, yet Deleuze and Guattari are offering a critique of capitalism. Wasn’t Marx against capitalism? How can Deleuze and Guattari both see something positive in capitalism, yet be critical of capitalism?

I confess that I was absolutely delighted by this remark, for what this participant was articulating was a position that can be loosely described as that of abstract negation. On the one hand, so the story goes, there is a position that one can advocate called “capitalism”, and on the other hand there is a position one can advocate called “communism” or Marxism. If one is for Marxism, then they are against capitalism, and political engagement at both the theoretical and practical level (for me these levels are never separated) is then a matter of finding ways to overturn capitalism.

In reality, Marx’s position is far more sophisticated and nuanced. Marx does not simply provide us with an economic theory, nor does he simply provide us with a normative theory articulating “what is to be done” or what institutions we should form. Rather, Marx provides us with a theory that strives to explain why social-formations have taken the form they have taken today and what emancipatory potentials the situation in which we exist contains. As N.Pepperell so nicely emphasizes, this has the effect of showing both how contemporary social-formations and forms of subjectivity are contingent, how they can be otherwise, but also revealing those determinate lines of flight (lines of flight actually haunting the situation or bifurcation points that we might grasp and push further) where change might become possible.

Much, much more in the original post.

On a not entirely unrelated point, I also wanted to draw attention to the fantastic posts Joseph Kugelmass has been posting at The Kugelmass Episodes (some cross-posted to The Valve), now that his comprehensive exams have been successfully completed. I wanted both to congratulate Joe on the successful exam results, and also thank Joe for the very kind words he offered in his return post for both Rough Theory and Larval Subjects. Hopefully we can continue some of the collective theory formation and intellectual community building that Joe highlights in his post.

Placeholders on Capitalism as Impersonal Domination

For those who haven’t yet updated their links, I wanted to mention that Ryan/Aless’ massthink is now back online after a brief hiatus, recharged and with a flurry of fantastic posts. The most recent post asks the question “What Is Capitalism?”, a question that Ryan/Aless answers using a fairly conventional form of Marxist theory:

Capitalism (let’s not mystify it) is simply an economic system where a group of people (the capitalists, the bourgeois) owns the means (i.e. the raw materials, the machines, the factories, land, etc., i.e. the investment money used to buy these, i.e. capital) of production (the process by which a society produces its economic goods) while the rest do not. The rest-the workers, the proletariat-have only their skills, their talents, their abilities, i.e. themselves. As such, in order to survive, in order to buy the goods (since they are, after all, also human beings who have needs) produced in the production process (managed, since they own the means of production, by the capitalists), the workers sell their skills, their talents, their abilities-labor (hence the designation laborers)-to the capitalists.

Ryan/Aless then goes on to unfold a notion of contradiction/internal tension that involves pointing to how labour differs from other means of production:

But man is not a commodity. He was not produced by the economic system; he (unlike a piece of bread, or a table, or computers) was not a product of capitalism. Sure, his labor might have been trained, honed by the economic system (through the educational ISA, the workplace, the family)-but not even his whole labor at that. Some of his talents, his abilities, he inherently has, i.e. he already has labor even before he enters the economy. More importantly, man himself is produced outside the commodity system. He was not born as some kind of good to be used, some commodity to be exchanged (or are we?). Yet, in capitalism, by virtue of the wage, that precisely is what he is: something bought and sold, i.e. a commodity. And if he can be bought and sold, someone must be doing the buying and the selling: the capitalists. The worker, then, (since bought) must be owned by someone (more accurately: something): the capitalist system itself. Man, paid for, is a MoP owned by capitalism.

I unfortunately don’t have time to pick up adequately on this point now, but I want to suggest (1) that this particular narrative of what capitalism is has been historically very important in the development both of movements for the humanisation of capitalism and for the political self-assertion of the working class, but (2) this form of theory tacitly identifies capitalism with a particular form of group domination – with personal relations of domination – in a way that may compromise our ability to grasp the distinctive qualitative characteristics of capitalism, and may particularly impede our ability to understand capitalism as a contradictory social form.

Speaking very, very briefly here, Ryan/Aless’ identification of capitalism with relations of personal domination (the domination of workers by a group of capitalists) suggests that capitalism as a social form will be overcome by the abolition of this concrete social relation. In the form presented above, it also suggests that the essential contradiction is between social relations that are conceptualised as arbitrary or artificial, on the one hand, and an ontological property of labourers, on the other (“More importantly, man himself is produced outside the commodity system. He was not born as some kind of good to be used…” – italics mine) – so the critical standpoint of this form of theory (the standpoint or position from which the critique is being offered) tacitly aligns itself with something more natural, against an artificial social. This form of theory thus breaches an immanent frame of analysis, positioning the theorist as someone who has access to a “natural” perspective from which the social can be recognised as a contingent and arbitrary human creation. At the same time – and to step outside the issues thematised by Ryan/Aless’ post – I would suggest that this form of theory leaves unclear how to grasp peculiar qualitative characteristics of capitalist society that seem at best arbitrarily related to the class relation posited here as central: the dynamism of capitalist production, the specific (and, I would argue, noneconomic) qualitative characteristics of capitalist production, including its unique “instrumental” character, the resonance of distinctive forms of subjectivity characteristic of the capitalist era, including forms of subjectivity constitutive of specific kinds of oppositional movements, etc. (I say all this very much as a placeholder, with full awareness that there would be no reason for anyone to take the point seriously as formulated here).

I mention all this, even though I don’t have the time to develop the point in any meaningful way here, as it’s occurred to me that it might not be clear that some of the theoretical positions I’ve been unfolding here recently – on abstraction, counterfactuals, and immanent theory in particular – are intended to unfold an alternative conceptualisation of capitalism. One that understands capitalism in terms of impersonal forms of domination (within which personal forms of domination may then be situated) that constitute an unintended, nonlinear dynamic of historical transformation – a dynamic characterised by contradictory pressures for the dissolution and reconstitution of the need to expend human labour in particular concrete forms. Although I cannot develop this point here (gestures have been made in earlier posts), the point of this kind of theoretical approach – of redefining capitalism so as to grasp its impersonal social dimensions – is both to open up to a theory of capitalism many of the salient qualitative characteristics of capitalist society – including forms of subjectivity and practice that point beyond this social form – and to avoid a form of critique that tacitly replicates the classical liberal philosophical distinction between artifice and nature, by explaining how capitalism itself generates this distinction as a moment in its own cycle of reproduction. I would argue that such a move is required for a genuinely immanent critical theory of capitalism – one that voices its critique in terms of the contradictions within capitalism, rather than as a contradiction between capitalism and something else (whether natural or social) – and that this approach can also begin to help us make sense of some of the historical dynamics that have been stacked against movements that articulate their opposition to capitalism in terms outlined in Ryan/Aless’ post.

I say all of this as a placeholder in the most emphatic sense: Ryan/Aless can and should dismiss what I’ve written here as ungrounded – or, if feeling particularly generous, he could perhaps advance me some time over the next few months to see whether I can develop the point in more adequate detail. 🙂

Notes to Self

I recently received an urgent request from a reader for a copy of an article I had discussed on the blog some months ago. The article is in fact quite difficult to find – the reading group had trouble sourcing it – and so I was happy to help out. I offered to scan and email the article the next time I was in the office.

Now that I’m here, and having rediscovered the hiding place of this particular document – conveniently filed in a pile of completely unrelated reading materials – I see that my only copy of the text is covered with my own marginal comments. Anyone who has seen my handwriting knows that it is beyond illegible, so any substantive remarks I’ve made on the document are probably quite safe from being deciphered. What is legible, unfortunately, is an embarrassing number of impatient and exasperated ventings, including the occasional “No!”, the periodic melodramatic “sigh”, and one off-kilter smiley face… While this text admittedly contains nothing as bizarre as the marginalia for my copy of Hegel’s Phenomenology, I nevertheless find myself blushing at the thought that I have committed to passing on to someone else a text annotated with my own temperamental outbursts, interspersed with illegible “substantive” scrawlings that read to me now rather like I’ve been caught in the act of pacing around like a mad person, ranting at the absent author…

The things we assume no one will see…

Richard Rorty

I’ve just seen the notice that Richard Rorty has passed away. A few of the blogs I frequent have posted reflections. I have a complex engagement with Rorty’s work, which provided the immediate provocation to lure me back into serious theoretical work after a long hiatus, and which served as a kind of gateway for me, opening my own work to influences from a wide range of philosophical traditions. I have enjoyed Rorty’s eclecticism and admired his willingness to engage seriously with competing intellectual traditions. I will miss his distinctive voice.

Via The Gristmill, a comment from Christopher Hayes that resonates with my own reaction to Rorty’s work:

Rorty had an uncanny ability to stare into the post-modern abyss, in which nothing is grounded in the divine or universal, and yet somehow, some way, find a kind of practical empathy that could serve as a beacon in the face of nihilism, authoritarianism and cruelty.

He will be greatly, greatly missed.

Updated to add: Chris at Mixing Memory is collecting links to reminscences on Rorty’s life and work. A particularly nice link points to Sean Carroll’s reflections at Cosmic Variance, which reflect on Rorty’s work in relation to the natural sciences. Sean’s post really should be read in full, but I was struck by the interdisciplinary appreciation of Rorty’s work:

When Rorty talks about “final vocabularies” in the quote above, he’s not really thinking of “quantum field theory” or “general relativity” or even “the scientific method,” although they would arguably be legitimate examples. He’s thinking of doctrines of religion or morality or politics or ethics or aesthetics that we use to judge good and bad and right and wrong in our lives. These are areas in which such vocabularies truly are contingent, and unpacking our presuppositions about their finality is a useful practice.

Science is different. To do science, we presume the existence of a “real world” that is “out there” and follows a set of rules and patterns that are completely independent of whatever actions we humans may be taking, including our actions of conceptualizing that real world. Questions of good and bad and right and wrong are not like that; their subject matter is our judgments themselves, which are subject to interrogation and ultimately to alteration. Right and wrong are not out there in the world to be probed and described; we create them through various human mechanisms. A scientist cannot consistently hold radical doubts about the nature of the real world.

On the other hand — and this is the part that, I think, scientists consistently miss — we certainly can hold radical doubts about the vocabulary with which we as scientists describe that real world. In fact, when pressed in other contexts, we are the first to insist that scientific theories are always useful but limited approximations, capturing some part of reality but certainly not the whole. Furthermore, even experimental data do not provide any unmediated glimpse of reality; not only are there error bars, but there are also the irreducible theory-laden choices about which data to collect, and how to fit them into our frameworks. These are commonplace scientific truisms, but they are also deep postmodern insights.

In my personal intellectual utopia, postmodernists would appreciate how science differs from morality and ethics and aesthetics by the ontological independence of its subject matter, while scientists would appreciate how there is a lot we have yet to quite understand about how we use language and evidence in an ultimately contingent way. Just as Rorty wanted to make ironic skepticism compatible with human solidarity, I’d like to see suspicion toward final vocabularies made compatible with the undeniable truth of scientific progress.

Tom at Grundlegung also offers a very nice set of personal and philosophical reflections on the strengths and weaknesses of Rorty’s work, and provides some pointers to further resources.

Continental Philosophy has gathered together a useful set of bibliographic and reference materials.

Ontology Matching as a Service Industry

One of my more amusing experiences this term has been being the point person for students with questions about ontology. My best guess is that this is happening because of a public lecture I gave early in the term, which among other things was tasked with trying to make sense of the concepts of ontology and epistemology for novice researchers in the social sciences. Since then, I’ve had a steady stream of students referred to me by other faculty, who want me to explain to them “what an ontology is” – or, worse, what their ontology is… (Everyone wants their own, it seems…)

Now, thanks to L Magee, I have some place to refer them. LM offers a tantalising – illustrated and in full-colour – selection of ontologies for all your research needs. I might suggest that this post casts the concept of “ontology matching” in an entirely new light: forget monitoring how people achieve intersubjective consensus in the face of incommensurable worldviews! Turn that fancy software of yours into an Ontology Matching Service! Students can answer a series of targeted questions in the privacy and anonymity of their homes, and then be matched by your ARC-backed, empirically validated, software, to their very own personalised ontology – a sort of conceptual dating service for researchers who may feel too shy or too busy to develop their own paradigm or conceptual scheme.

What One of Us Does When Not Blogging…

L Magee continues to amaze: it seems that, around stints of teaching, developing software, writing a PhD, holding down a “real” job, posting here and at schematique, and providing me with endlessly patient advice on my own work, LM has somehow found time to train for a half-marathon on the sly!

Next Sunday, 17 June, LM will be participating in The Age Run to the G, on behalf of nominated charity OxFam. When I offered to plug the event on the blog, LM responded by worrying that doing this might render LM’s motives unclear:

I’m sincerely not interested in the prizes, and am not interested in fundraising in my name. But if the curiousity of a sometime-roughtheory poster running (jogging? walking?) a half-marathon entices people to contribute something small to OxFam, this is not a bad thing.

So: if anyone is interested in cheering from the sidelines, LM will be one of the faces in the crowd setting out at 7:15 next Sunday morning from Federation Square. And if anyone would be interested in making a donation to OxFam, more information can be found here. Note that, since LM is trying diligently to disqualify from the prize pool while still raising money for the Stamp Out Poverty campaign, you might need to drift over to the regular donation link on the OxFam site to make a donation not explicitly linked to a race participant.