Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

What Is To Be Done?

Sinthome from Larval Subjects has re-emerged from a recent silence with a beautiful critical challenge:

Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not only to explain the world, but to change it. But what is it that is to be explained? What is it that is to be changed? And how is it to be changed?

Sinthome notes – and criticises – the attraction of authoritarian and anarchistic visions of transformation, and then returns to several pivotal questions:

Returning to Marx’s conception of the aim of philosophy, it seems that there are three relevant and interrelated issues:

1. What is to be changed?
2. How is it to be changed?
3. Why does the world take the form it takes at this particular point in history?

Sinthome then suggests the scaffolding for an analytical framework that would seek to analyse potentials for transformation by grasping three main elements: attractors – relatively stable, equilibrium states toward which a system is drawn; vectors – processes through which attractors come to be; and the current state of play at a particular moment in time. Sinthome suggests that different critical theories can be characterised by which of these three elements they emphasise, but argues that the main strength of this approach is not classificatory, but rather practical:

The point of these distinctions is not merely sociological and anthropological. While it is certainly the case that a rich sociology and ethnography could be developed using these concepts– indeed, it could be said that economics, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, etc., study nothing but various types of attractors and vectors without using this precise language –the aim is ultimately a response to the first and second questions: “what is to be changed?” and “how is change to be produced?” At what points, in a particular social system, do disequilibriums appear, such that new attractors either become possible or appear? What dimensions of a social formation are to be targeted? Can particular attractors and vectors be strategically targeted, or is the cadence of change an inexorable process immune to social engineering? Can the formation of new attractors be targeted in a precise way, or are we necessarily faced with the demon of unintended consequences when targeting the vector-fields of a particular social system (i.e., we end up with a situation like Pol Pot)? Why is it that certain strategies of transformation are often so unsuccessful? For instance, the protests throughout the world leading up to the current Iraq war? What is it about the current social system that was able to absorb these events without a disruption of the dominant attractors, as if they didn’t even exist or occur? Why did protests have a much greater impact during the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements of the 60s? Is there a relationship, a social memory, that annulled the efficaciousness of the contemporary protest movements? Without posing questions of disequilibrium, it is difficult to pose any of these questions clearly.

I’ve condensed the post severely here – read the original for a real understanding of how the argument unfolds.

6 responses to “What Is To Be Done?

  1. pdxstudent July 15, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    In response to the three issues you quote from Sinthome, I don’t want to say they’re not there, either as side- or sub-issues, but that they are really a kind of enunciated content potentially distracting us from a question at the moment/site/whatever of enunciation itself: what is change?

    When you think about it this way, I think Zizek’s whole Leninist arc begins to make more sense. The revolutionary gesture is a kind of bringing ourselves to asking that latter question and dealing with the answer. Of course, as Lacan describes psychoanalysis as a truth-experience, this is no ordinary question, and its answer may not necessarily be made in the same way as those three questions. That, though, may be why it is the more important, underlying question with which to tarry.

    I think it’s important to address Sinthome’s issues, if only as a way into their more subtle implication: change.

  2. N Pepperell July 15, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    If you’d be willing, I’d like to see you develop your point a bit more?

    I have a long-standing interest in the ways in which particular movements themselves conceptualise transformation – particularly the degree to which movements understand transformations in relation to the context in which those movements themselves arose. But this may not touch on your interest, so I’d like to hear more.

  3. pdxstudent July 15, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    I will have to return to my blog-entry on Zizek’s Repeating Lenin, which you may or may-not have checked out. It emerged from a term-paper I wrote last month, after immersing myself in Zizek’s major works on Lenin, revolution, and tangentially subjectivity.

    I’ll say right now that your interest in “the ways in which particular movements themselves conceptualise transformation” is precisely Zizek’s concern in his works on Lenin. For Zizek, Lenin grasped something about (revolutionary) change that enabled him not to get bogged down with questions that may fall along-side those previous mentioned three from Sinthome, which is not to say they don’t have their place. Zizek is intensely interested in repeating Lenin in this way: we must, on the political and individual level, formulate our questions about (revolutionary) change to possess the structure of change itself.

    It’s not quite Gandhi’s maxim, but that’s probably more catchy. It’s more like, in bringing up the very issue of revolution we must not be tempted to assume that it has co-ordinates within the present ideological-hegemonic field. If we do that, we risk (inevitably) producing a revolution as an effect of that field and not as a subversion of it. Hence, “third way” or otherwise centrist (revolutionary) political programs appear to Zizek as non-sense, since they assume that the means of revolution lay within or in some relation to the ideological co-ordinates of Left and Right.

    Likewise, Woman does not exist, except as a symptom of Man. In this sense, our revolutions occur as symptoms of the repression of the initial revolutionary gesture, which is to say in our continued denial of the possibility of revolution– not in our compromises to certain interests, but in the very refusal to make the revolutionary gesture in the question of revolution itself.

    To be sure, there is a pratical dimension to all of this; there are things to be done. At this point I can’t say I see Zizek suggesting them or where they are being suggested. I myself am not in a position to suggest what is to be done either, though more out of the simple reason that I have a lot more to learn about the playing field than about the potential consequences of how it’s played.

  4. pdxstudent July 15, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    It got kind of lost in that last comment of mine, but it was one of the first things I thought of writing. Zizek’s most challenging (both to find and understand) point in repeating Lenin, which is to say his revolutionary gesture, is that the revolution is at once bound by historical conditions, and in that way is never the same, and yet ahistorical, and in that way too is bound by neither sameness nor differentness.

    This means he makes hints at certain ways in which we should re-try the October Revolution and the initial program Lenin enacted, but I’m not so sure. He makes the outright statement that to repeat Lenin is not to repeat his program in this way, though there is something to be taken from it. Given that, I think that the revolutionary gesture means confronting change in that way I made in my initial comment: just what is it?

  5. N Pepperell July 15, 2007 at 7:05 pm

    This is good – thanks for the expanded reflections. I won’t be able to pick up as adequately as I’d like – I have this annoying cold, whose primary symptom at the moment is a stuffed-up brain. So if this reply seems massively off point or not terribly coherent, you’ll know why 🙂

    In a very gestural way, I suspect that a distinction can be made between positions that try to understand revolutionary transformation as some kind of extension of something within what you’ve called the present hegemonic field – so, movements that would sort of line up with what I’ve occasionally called an “affirmative” concept of critique (vocabulary is a vexed issue in these discussions… it may take a while for us to figure out how to talk about similar things… sorry if this is unclear or ambiguous…); and, on the other hand, a notion that revolutionary movements are an actual immanent potential in some way, that there can be a determinate relationship of some kind between the present context, and a transformation of that context. I tend to be leery both of affirmative critique, and of what I tend to call “abstract negations” – forms of critique or movements that seek some kind of complete or indeterminate break.

    To me, I suppose, both critique and practical transformation involve a sort of wrenching of constituted potentials out of the position they occupy in a current network of social relations – which is why I play so often with Benjamin’s imagery (“brushing history against the grain”, critique as a collector removing material resources from their roles in either exchange or use value, etc.), as it often combines some recognition of constituted potentials in a determinate context, with a sense that these potentials can’t be fully realised within the context that constituted them. Not that this means much, stated abstractly like this – just stumbling around my positions.

    I am sympathetic to the notion that some kind of determinate conception of change is necessary for a transformative movement – although I probably think that developing such a conception – a conception of what I think you’re calling the structure of change – also provides a sense of the current context – and therefore of things like targets for political practice.

    Although my current work doesn’t address the issue head-on, a lot of my work has been informed by the issue of unintended side effects – of the ways in which attempts at emancipatory transformation reconstitute what they explicitly aimed to abolish, or even actively seek out alternatives that fall beneath the level of the present. Someone like Adorno deals with these questions primarily psychodynamically. One of the questions I’ve been wrestling with is what else may go on, in addition to these sorts of psychodynamic factors, that may make the structure of change simply difficult to perceive – this is part of what I take Marx to have been trying to theorise: how capitalism has a structure that continuously deflects attention onto various concrete social institutions that are actually structurally contingent (capitalism can survive their abolition), such that revolutionary movements tend to “succeed”, and even effect dramatic transformations (and sometimes historically pivotal humanising reforms), without quite becoming “revolutionary” in the sense they understand themselves to be.

    Apologies that this is a bit scattered – not the most coherent day for me 🙂

  6. Pingback: » The More Things Change

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