Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

To What End

The main interest in life and work is to become someone else that you were not in the beginning. If you knew when you began a book what you would say at the end, do you think that you would have the courage to write it? What is true for writing and for a love relationship is true also for life. The game is worthwhile insofar as we don’t know what will be the end.

~ Michel Foucault

(1982) “Truth, Power, Self: An Interview”, in L.H. Martin (1988) Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, London: Tavistock, p. 9-15.

What is this strange thing about writing that requires courage? Where is the risk? Why is this task so fraught?

“It’s the problem with reading so many primary sources,” L Magee suggests the other day, when we discuss this issue, “You think you have to be that good.”

I mention that I am relatively good with situational pieces – the context is known, and bounded. It’s developing the boundaries that is difficult for me – deciding when it’s okay to stop. LM shares this worry: “I say to myself, how can I possibly write on this, when I haven’t read…” I wince, as LM manages to list some works I also don’t know – I feel the boundaries pushing farther back. Involuntarily, I remember ZaPaper discussing how research is fractal: no matter how much you drill down, things never seem to become less complex – if you don’t rein things in, ZaPaper argues, “One ends up investigating everything and writing nothing”.

In my conversation with LM, I change the topic quickly to get my mind off of all the works we have convinced one another we must read (I’m actually embarrassed to list the things LM and I are planning to read together this term – embarrassed because it’s simply absurd, the number of works – the number of fields – we are frantically trying to cover, in our quest to feel vaguely adequate to the problems we are posing. I’m reminded of Scott Eric Kaufman’s search for complete world knowledge – I think that’s a fairly good description of what we’re telling one another we’ll manage to cover in the next six months…).

I offer that I do better when I have a specific audience in mind, when I have some idea what concepts are shared, and what concepts need to be developed and explained in detail. “Write for me, then,” LM volunteers, “Let me be your audience – then you’ll know to keep things simple, break things down.”

LM is being modest – as if I haven’t received the most thorough criticism of my work in our conversations – I hardly need to be simple in our discussions.

The issue, though, isn’t really audience, or situation – or even background – these are all deflections from the core challenge, which concerns the question or problem. Writing begins in earnest for me when I’ve decided what the core problem will be. Knowing the audience or the situation makes this easier, because the universe of possible problems that interest me can be narrowed to the much smaller set of problems that jointly interest me and specific interlocutors, or that intersect with some specific situation. But the core issue is still defining the problem.

At the moment, I’m balancing across a few core problems, and have been writing at a level of abstraction high enough that I could keep all of these problems suspended at once. This was useful, very useful, for a period. But now I need to move back to something ever so slightly more concrete (realising that this term only ever applies in a slightly ironic way to my work), which will force me to leave some of these problems to the side for a time. As a step in this direction, over the next couple of months LM and I will be working on a proto-collaborative project from time to time, starting with a set of reflections on The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, and tentatively organised around the question “Is There a Logic of the Social Sciences?”

Ironically, this topic picks up on the very earliest theoretical question I addressed on the blog: whether it is viable or productive to seek to understand the emergence of the social sciences, and the relationship between the social and the natural sciences, with reference to some kind of strong ontological distinction between forms of human practice, or the properties of social and natural worlds as objects of knowledge. When I first addressed this issue here, I contested the validity of this kind of theoretical move, but left (as an exercise for the writer… ;-P) what a developed alternative might look like. We’ll see whether this collaborative dialogue allows me to pick up on some of these issues in a more adequate way – and how the question comes to be refracted when translated into a more interactive exchange.

I should note by way of apology that I pulled an unintentional bait-and-switch to get LM on board with this vision of a collaborative project. We’ve been talking about doing some form of collaborative writing for some time, but have both been too busy to undertake anything more involved than what we’ve attempted from time to time on the blog. Now that our schedules are lightening a bit, we returned to the issue of collaborative writing with a more serious intent. I suggested an upcoming (low key) conference, LM suggested something around The Positivist Dispute, and I proposed that perhaps we could look into the competing meanings of “the critical tradition”, as this concept was central to this debate. All well and good, and so we shared dinner and a nice conversation around what we might write, and then, just when all seemed settled and we were wandering into the subway station to go home, I was suddenly hit with the concept and burst out, “You know of course what we could do instead? We could also look at the whole notion of the logic of the social sciences – maybe title the presentation is there a logic of the social sciences?”

LM blanched, and reminded me that I had recently been lamenting that, when I present, people tell me I am… er… scary: did I really think, LM wanted to know, that presenting on this particular question would assist me in overcoming that perception? I found myself rationalising – oh, it won’t be that big of a deal – no one will show for the presentation, really, because the topic is just too abstruse – if people do show, it’ll just seem like a discussin of a dead debate, etc. LM seemed sceptical, and began to list people that would be likely to attend. I suspect I’m too tempted by the topic, by the problem, to let other concerns get in the way… This reaction no doubt has something to do with what tends to happen when I present… So here we are – at least for the moment – having decided to open a discussion on the blog, and then see what develops from here that we might (or might not) turn into a presentation in a couple of months.

Note that we haven’t settled on any particular order or schedule for posts. I’ll try to write something over the weekend to get things started – most likely focussing solely on Popper and Adorno’s original contributions to the debate, and exploring how the competing notions of critique yield different concepts of the social sciences. We don’t have any specific plans for what will fall out of this discussion – whether it might yield some kind of joint presentation, duelling presentations from competing stances, or a decision that the topic isn’t productive for what we each want to write at the moment – these decisions will emerge over time. Hopefully we’ll both find it productive for our current writing, not knowing how all of this will end…

4 responses to “To What End

  1. Sarapen June 6, 2007 at 7:25 am

    It’s horrible how one not only never has the time to read everything one is supposed to, but sometimes it feels like everyone else has read everything important except you specifically. There you are reading a book when you come across not even a citation, but an offhand reference to something completely unknown to you; however, it’s something which the writer clearly thought was so commonly known it didn’t need to be explained, and so you think to yourself, “I suck.”

    You know, I remember telling someone how often I felt overwhelmed by everything I don’t know and them replying in disbelief, “Oh my god, Mr. Know-it-all is saying this?” Gah! My mind practically exploded. How could anyone think I was so knowledgeable? I think it’s because I often stand arms akimbo and gazing off into the distance, I cut such a dashing figure my competence is clearly unquestionable.

  2. rob June 6, 2007 at 10:38 am

    I mention that I am relatively good with situational pieces – the context is known, and bounded. It’s developing the boundaries that is difficult for me – deciding when it’s okay to stop. LM shares this worry: “I say to myself, how can I possibly write on this, when I haven’t read…” I wince, as LM manages to list some works I also don’t know – I feel the boundaries pushing farther back.

    At the risk of taking your opening remarks about the anxiety of writing too seriously, I can’t help but recall a crucial passage from Derrida’s (yes, him again!) “Structure, Sign and Play”. I think it’s worth recalling because I don’t feel that the above expression of hopelessness (as it were) in the face of so much reading really accounts for the risk of writing and for the ideal of (self)transformation that Foucault hints at in the cited passage — although I’m aware that, of course, LM’s and your remarks weren’t necessarily intended as a direct or serious or engaged elaboration of Foucault’s point. In any case, I think the passage from “SS&P” that I’m going to cite will be of interest in relation to your proposed project as well, if only because it is concerned (albeit, perhaps only tacitly) with the ways in which the discourse of the social sciences is organised (and is therefore concerned with the question of the “logic” of the social sciences).

    The passage follows a citation from Levi-Strauss which characterises what L-S sees as the relationship between structuralism and empiricism, and D goes on to consider the question of totalisation in relation to the empirical field.

    Totalization, therefore, is sometimes defined [i.e. by Levi-Strauss] as useless, and sometimes as impossible. This is no doubt due to the fact that there are two ways of conceiving the limit of totalization. And I assert once more that these two determinations coexist implicitly in Levi-Strauss’s discourse. Totalization can be judged impossible in the classical style: one then refers to the empirical endeavor of either a subject or a finite richness which it can never master. There is too much, more than one can say [or read, perhaps?]. But nontotalization can also be determined in another way: no longer from the standpoint of a concept of finitude as relegation to the empirical, but from a standpoint of the concept of play. If totalization no longer has any meaning, it is not because the infinite richness of a field cannot be covered by a finite glance of a finite discourse, but because the nature of the field — that is, language and a finite language — excludes totalization. This field is in effect that of play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite, that is to say, because instead of being an inexhaustible field, as in the classical hypothesis, instead of being too large, there is something missing from it: a center which arrests and grounds the play of substitutions.

  3. N Pepperell June 6, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Sarapen! Good to see you ’round these parts! Everyone thinks I’m an expert in some other discipline – I think of it as the “aura” of interdisciplinary work – it lets me be completely incompetent in anything I’m actually discussing, while other people convince themselves that I have vast knowledge and expertise in whatever they falsely think I do…

    rob – I’ve thought about similar things in a somewhat inverse form: that people are mistaken in arguing, for example, that there is “too much information” to engage in certain kinds of analysis “these days”. The issue is never really one of quantity – the amount of relevant analytical material doesn’t necessarily increase with time – the silent weaving of history also eliminates matters from consideration… But this just means – I think you’re right here – that people mistake the source of inexhaustibility… and exhaustion… 😉

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