Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The More Things Change

Classes begin today, and so I’m in a horrific rush this morning. Before I lose the thought, I just want to lift very quickly out of the comments section an important question pdxstudent asked yesterday, in a conversation about how to understand the potential for transformation. Pdxstudent has raised a deceptively complex point, in the form of an apparently simply question, which is that, in order to understand the potential for transformation, we must first come to terms with the issue: what is change?

I didn’t make an adequate response to this question yesterday, and still won’t this morning, but I just wanted to foreground that I think there are particular reasons that this question is exceptionally important within my own theoretical framework. I define capitalism as a particular structure of historical change. Structures – this was implicit in the discussion of Deleuze and Marx yesterday – become manifest to experience indirectly: they cannot be seen in their own right, but only through the movements of other things through which they are enacted, and in which they appear. In the case of the structure of historical change that interests me, the structure becomes visible through the historical transformations of other, I tend to call them more “concrete”, social and cultural institutions over time.

The structural character of capitalism already poses particular complexities for social movements seeking emancipatory transformation, as movements can become beguiled by the concrete institutions in and through which the structure is enacted at a given point in time: movements can target a particular institution, not realising that the institution may be contingent in relation to the structure itself. When the structure is also dynamic, this poses further problems, as dramatic transformations are actually intrinsic to the system a movement might be seeking to transform. It becomes necessary – and yet very difficult – for movements to assess the qualitative character of the transformation being effected. What can instead happen is that movements can easily be caught in the “collective effervescence” and feeling of power that comes with occupying the pivot point of a dramatic historical shift – without realising that such shifts can also be the form of reproduction of what they believe themselves to be overcoming.

To borrow Marx’s term, this is how I understand the “fetish” of capitalism: these structurally plausible tendencies to become distracted by concrete institutions or excited by the experience of change as such. These elements, intrinsic to the social form itself, make fundamental transformation – or even a solid understanding of the likely consequences of reform – particularly difficult. Unless, as pdxstudent has suggested, we first tarry over the question: what is change?

Updated to add: pdxstudent continues the exchange over at And Now For Something Completely Different. My favourite sentence:

The most radical question we should be asking, if we are to return to Marx’s aim of philosophy, is that which confronts change head-on and takes it seriously and not its impossibility.

Best, though, to read the whole.

5 responses to “The More Things Change

  1. rob July 18, 2007 at 11:03 am

    Your favourite sentence from pdxstudent reminds me of my favourite sentence(s) from John D. Caputo:

    Thinking the impossible, trying to think the impossible, is among the most important tasks of philosophy, which leaves what is possible to the other disciplines. The impossible is what pulls us out of our most sedimented thoughts and opens up for us new possibilities.

  2. N Pepperell July 18, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    Is it unforgivably inconsistent of me to say that I like them both? 🙂 (I find myself in this position often…)

    In both sentences, the orientation is to possibilities – perhaps some notions of impossibility bar the way to the possible, while others open new ways up?

  3. pdxstudent July 18, 2007 at 2:09 pm

    I don’t know, I think my statement was more in line with Rob’s comment. When I say that the more radical questions confronts change and not its impossibility, I mean quite literally that the impossibility in question is seen as a block that we must not take so seriously– its laughable. In taking change seriously, we reject the assumption that its impossibility should factor into whether we enact it.

  4. N Pepperell July 18, 2007 at 2:47 pm

    I think I was suggesting that your statement was in line with rob’s comment 🙂 Feels a little bit like “who’s on second?” 😉

    The concept of impossibility is used paradoxically in some traditions, and more literally in others – and, depending on how you understand the term, you may find the concept of “impossibility” is a lever for opening up new possibilities, or a deflection from practice.

  5. rob July 18, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    So we’re all in agreement, then, that the two comments resonate with and reinforce each other rather than contradict each other. Good to see!

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