Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Silent Weaving

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have engaged in a sustained collaborative interaction with Sinthome from Larval Subjects for some time. The two blogs are criss-crossed with mutual references, trackbacks, and links – the material traces of the threads of our conversations over the past year. And, even when public discussion has grown momentarily quiet, Sinthome’s questions and comments often lie just beneath the surface of what I write. Hopefully Sinthome won’t object if I reflect on some of those questions and comments in this post – at least as a placeholder for discussion at a later time.

The question that is currently echoing in my thoughts concerns the role of the terms “negation” and “contradiction” in my theoretical work. Sinthome has wondered whether these terms might toss readers into a thoughtspace that sits in tension with some of the other ways that I describe the work of critique. I generally describe critique, for example, as a process of exploring and rendering explicit potentials for practice that have been constituted within a determinate situation, but that contain the potential to react back on that situation itself. Sinthome has suggested that this is not how most readers will hear or understand a theoretical system that deploys terms like “contradiction” or “negation” – that these terms are historically and currently associated with a very different, perhaps more proscriptive, or perhaps more abstract, vision of the work of critique. Do I really need these terms – or are these just layers from an earlier theoretical training, which should be discarded for greater clarity in what I am currently trying to express?

I’ll place my reflections on these questions below the fold. I’m unfortunately still in recovery mode – from a complex term and from some rather intense sleep deprivation during the past couple of weeks – and, while I want to capture my fragmentary thoughts while they are still fresh, I don’t believe that the resultant discussion will be quite ready for prime time. Hopefully I’ll be able to pick up these fragments in a more adequate way some time soon.

I should note at the outset that I am never particularly focussed on vocabulary, but on the concepts that vocabulary seeks to express – if I can find a better way to express those concepts, I’ll happily trade in my existing terms. The question is whether the terms “contradiction” and “negation” fall into this category: are these terms that I am using in an unconventional and therefore misleading way? Regardless of whether my meaning is standard, do I need these terms? Do they best communicate what I am trying to say?

I’ll discuss the two concepts – contradiction and negation – separately. I also won’t discuss either concept comprehensively: this will be the first “serious” post I’ve written in close to a month, and I’m still in recovery mode from a period of very draining, very non-intellectual, work – I’m aiming for placeholders and notes at this point, with the hope of developing these points more carefully and clearly in subsequent work.

On the concept of “contradiction”: my first impulse was to respond by saying that I use the term only to express that contemporary society is not, to use the Frankfurt School term, “one dimensional” – to express that we are living in a society that generates more than simply tendencies toward its own reproduction, but also determinate tendencies toward its own transformation. By unfolding a theory of such a contradictory social context – by theorising the context in such a way that both potentials for reproduction and for transformation are grasped as integral moments of the operation of the social context – a critical theory can account for itself, for the emergence of the forms of critical subjectivity that express themselves in critical and transformative political practice, self-reflexively, as a possibility immanent to the world the theory seeks to understand.

The concept of social contradiction in this broad sense aims to avoid the problem caused by “asymmetrical” theories that offer, for example, a good account of social reproduction, but leave unclear how critical forms of subjectivity would ever arise immanently. Asymmetrical theories then need to reach for an “outside” – for something not in a determinate relationship with the context being theorised – in order to account for the emergence of critical forms of subjectivity and for transformative political movements. By contrast, a theory that can successfully thematise the social context as internally contradictory need not reach for an “outside”: it can instead seek to explore specific ways that the current context generates potentials that serve as irritants and as means to forge something that transcends the conditions under which these potentials were produced. By understanding social context as multidimensional, and as intrinsically generative of potentials that suggest the possibility for freedoms that present forms of social organisation constrain, critical theory becomes self-reflexive in a way that links directly with targets for political practice.

All well and good. But is this what most theorists mean, when they talk about a “social contradiction”? In classical Marxism, the central social contradiction involved the forces and relations of production. The relations of production (private property and the market mode of distribution) were understood to constrain the full development and realisation of the forces of production (the proletariat and the socialised means of production). In this understanding of social contradiction, capitalism was driving inexorably toward the socialisation of the means of production and the growth of the proletarian class. These historical trends increasingly revealed the irrationality of a mode of distribution predicated on the market and private property. This contradiction was thus understood to generate both the material and ideal conditions for the overcoming of capitalism and the inauguration of socialism – in the form of the abolition of the market and private property and the consolidation of production under centralised planning. Other variants of Marxist theory located the essential social contradiction in something more like a psychological tension induced by a system that simultaneously requires conflicting dispositions from members of the working classes – for example, a requirement that individuals develop a high capacity for personal autonomy, while also functioning as appendages or cogs in a productive apparatus (in some ways, Habermas’ work could be seen as a mediated version of this vision of social contradiction).

Neither of these approaches to the concept of contradiction quite captures either the way I conceptualise capitalism, or the decentred and distributed character of how I visualise potentials for transformation – points that I won’t develop fully here. Having come to this realisation, however, I then had to wonder whether I could jettison the term “contradiction” and use something else to express the notion of a social context that was not fully identical with itself, of a social context that generated multivalent potentials.

Then I remembered (can you tell I’m still groggy from the term?) that there is actually a quite central sense in which I do view capitalism as literally contradictory: I tend to use a working definition of capitalism as a dynamic social system whose historical development generates contradictory pressures to displace and reconstitute the need for the expenditure of labour – whose temporal dynamic generates both pressures to displace labour through productivity increases, and diverse pressures to reconstitute the need to expend labour in new forms of production. The direct causes and forms of institutionalisation of these pressures are complex – and vary over time. So long as these pressures are produced as effects of collective practice, however, there is a meaningful sense in which the context remains capitalist, in and through quite dramatic transformations of concrete social institutions and practices. The “instrumental” character of capitalism – the sense of a system oriented to production for production’s sake, the sense of a means that has become an end – derives from the experience of these contradictory pressures. So I do use a concept of contradiction – it’s just that, in comparison with the notions of contradiction to which I gestured above, I don’t align critique as directly with one of the contradictory poles, but instead (and I can’t develop this point here) provide a fairly mediated analysis of the ways in which the operation of the contradiction tends to result in a series of tacit and indirect side effects that point beyond both poles of the contradictory social form.

So, in my current plodding state, I seem to have trundled my way back to a notion that I do require a concept of contradiction – and will therefore have to be clearer what I mean by this term. I may want to choose a different term for the “broad” sense of contradiction I mentioned above – for situations in which I am only trying to express the notion of a context that is not fully identical with itself – and reserve the term “contradiction” for the more narrowly contradictory dimensions of the large-scale temporal dynamic that characterises capitalist history.

Moving right along… Sinthome also questioned the use of the term “negation”, suggesting that a theory that understands critique as the identification of potentials might not be well-served by the terminology of negation. Here the issue is somewhat complex: my position would be that I do need to retain the term “negation” – or at least some close equivalent – but that I don’t intend this term as a descriptor of what I am doing when speaking in my own voice. One of the central theoretical problems I’m am trying to resolve is how it should come to be the case that certain things that I believe I can thematise as determinate, immanent, potentials generated by collective human practices specific to our social context, should instead come to be viewed in some other traditions as negatives – as nothing – as what is left behind when all positive determinations have been stripped away. This task is made more complicated by the fact that I am trying to offer an immanent theory – which means, among other things, that my own approach doesn’t give me privileged access to an “outside” from which I can criticise competing positions as “objectively” wrong. Instead, critique has to take the form of demonstrating the plausibility of competing positions – explaining why the forms of subjectivity expressed in competing theoretical approaches plausibly exist in the social world I am analysing – while also demonstrating these positions to be partial and criticisable, when viewed from other collectively-available perspectives (again, a highly abbreviated comment that I can’t develop fully here).

When I mention potentials that are perceived to express what remains when all positive determinations have been stripped away, I have in mind affirmative notions of scientific objectivity or neutrality, but also many critical perspectives – for example, approaches that see critique as a standpoint that expresses a form of subjectivity that results from some sort of total exclusion from society, or a critical perspective that arises from an abstraction to a mere biological existence, or a critical ideal that relates to some sort of vision of an underlying human nature: I believe that I can show how such positions, that understand themselves as expressive of a perspective devoid of arbitrary social determinations – that thematise critique quintessentially in terms of the criticism of arbitrary determinations – instead express determinate sensibilities that relate to identifiable forms of collective practice that are specific to capitalist society. What other approaches might see as an undetermined remainder, I think I can grasp as a determinate potential – a potential whose specific qualitative characteristics I can link back to interrelated forms of practice and shapes of consciousness that are generated as moments of a capitalist society – but that can also point beyond the circumstances in which they have arisen.

A key element to this kind of critique is that it does not function to unmask and debunk the forms of thought or practice to which it draws attention. The core point is not to demonstrate that competing understandings of critique are “wrong”, but rather to show how they deflect attention away from specific dimensions of social practice that are generative of the forms of critical sensibility associated with “negation”, while channelling critical attention in a one-sided way toward what I tend to call concrete social relations. As a consequence (and I am painfully aware of how undeveloped and unsubstantiated this point will be, raised in this way), these forms of critique can tend to focus attention on potentials to transform institutions whose existence is already constituted as radically contingent within capitalism, while obscuring and thus shielding from critique other key dimensions of a capitalist context. In Benjaminian terms, such forms of critique don’t allow history – our history, our constituted present – to become “citable in all its moments”. The consequences can range from inappropriate pessimism due to the perception that the social context is more impervious to transformation than it actually is, all the way through to catastrophic failures of utopian revolutionary movements. I am trying to develop a better theoretical scaffolding for making sense of how such consequences become likely – and how we might possibly prevent them.

Within this framework, I am developing a critique of negation: I am attempting to understand why some forms of critical sensibility seem to have difficulties understanding their own imbrication in the world they criticise, and therefore perceive themselves as existing in a purely or abstractly negative, rather than a determinate, relationship with their object of critique – to understand why the object of critique is often easily thematised as artificial and socially determined, while critique itself is not so easily conceptualised in its particular constituted social determinacy. This isn’t, of course, at all to claim that I’m the only person doing offering this kind of analysis. I’m just trying to clarify that, when I’m talking about “negation”, I am specifically positioning my work in relation to approaches – critical or affirmative, tacit or explicit – that understand themselves to be criticising the “artificial”, while tacitly or explicitly treating the standpoint of their own critique as somehow less artificial or more “real” than what they are criticising. My position is that critique does not operate by opposing artificial to real, but by exploring and unfolding the implications of specific constituted potentials, relative to other constituted potentials – and that understanding the determinate processes through which we constitute potentials for both reproduction and transcendence is an integral element of this exploration.

This said (and said unclearly at that…), I have recently been expressing these sorts of concepts with the Hegelian loan term “determinate negation” – mainly because the term strikes me as a sort of historical precursor for the concept I’m fumbling toward – an attempt to capture the notion that there is an actual substantive content to negation – that, in Hegel’s inimitable formulation:

The completeness of the forms of unreal consciousness will be brought about precisely through the necessity of the advance and the necessity of their connection with one another. To make this comprehensible we may remark, by way of preliminary, that the exposition of untrue consciousness in its untruth is not a merely negative process. Such a one-sided view of it is what the natural consciousness generally adopts; and a knowledge, which makes this one-sidedness its essence, is one of those shapes assumed by incomplete consciousness which falls into the course of the inquiry itself and will come before us there. For this view is scepticism, which always sees in the result only pure nothingness, and abstracts from the fact that this nothing is determinate, is the nothing of that out of which it comes as a result. Nothing, however, is only, in fact, the true result, when taken as the nothing of what it comes from; it is thus itself a determinate nothing, and has a content. The scepticism which ends with the abstraction “nothing” or “emptiness” can advance from this not a step farther, but must wait and see whether there is possibly anything new offered, and what that is – in order to cast it into some abysmal void. When once, on the other hand, the result is apprehended, as it truly is, as determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen; and in the negation the transition is made by which the progress through the complete succession of forms comes about of itself. (79)

Whether this is a good idea, as a terminological choice, I’m not sure. I like the concepts that mingle together in the term. I’ll have to decide over time whether, in spite of this, the term gets in the way of what I’m trying to say.

All of this, of course, remains solely within the boundaries of a social analysis, which is the context within which these categories of contradiction and negation have arisen.


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