Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Fragment on Theoretical Pessimism

I’ve been invited to present at an event that brings together critical theorists and activists to reflect on the relevance – or lack of relevance – of particular forms of critical theory to contemporary activism. The event won’t take place until early next year – the organisers are still finalising the details of the format and specific theme in consultation with the presenters. I’ll post more specific information to the blog when things are further along. For the moment, I’m just trying to get my head around what I might present, to give the organisers some information they can use when making decisions on format and promotion for the event.

The invitation has me thinking about the concept of theoretical pessimism – and wondering specifically how many current, “living” traditions of critical social theory are not pessimistic. It will already be clear from this question that I must mean the term “theoretical pessimism” in a very specific sense. There are many critical theoretic approaches that seek to ground some potential for emancipatory transformation – in the everyday sense of the word “pessimism”, many theoretical traditions are not pessimistic at all. My question relates more to the somewhat technical meaning of “theoretical pessimism” used in discussions of the trajectory of the Frankfurt School.

In this context, the concepts of theoretical pessimism, self-reflexivity, and socio-historical immanence are intrinsically intertwined. By theorising its own socio-historical context in a way that reveals how that context generates determinate, socially immanent, potentials for its own transformation, the theory becomes self-reflexive. Self-reflexivity, in this framework, therefore means simply that the theory can account for its own existence as a potential generated immanently by the socio-historical context it is analysing. Critical social theory accounts for itself by showing how its own socio-historical context internally generates determinate potentials for transformation, potentials that are then expressed in the ideals or values articulated by the critique. Self-reflexivity is thus intrinsically aligned with – defined in terms of – the theory’s ability to identify determinate, socially immanent, practical potentials for transformation. Within this framework, when a theory cannot identify how a specific socio-historical context generates determinate internal potentials for transformation, it ceases to be self-reflexive or immanent, and becomes a pessimistic theory – a theory whose critical objections to its own social context can no longer be linked with a determinate analysis of how that context might be transformed. This is, in fact, what happened to the first generation of the Frankfurt School.

One thing that is sometimes missed – in part because earlier forms of Marxist theory sometimes attempted to extrapolate some kind of general sociological principle from this vision of immanent critical theory – is that this kind of social critique would only ever be possible if the socio-historical context were to have very specific qualities. There is no reason to assume that all forms of human community would generate determinate internal potentials for some specific form of transformation whose character could potentially be theorised before it occurs: it’s not difficult to imagine scenarios in which something like immanent social critique wouldn’t make sense – scenarios in which change is solely aleatory in structure, or driven by human actors from outside the community being theorised, or catalysed by natural events, etc. The claim that something like an immanent and self-reflexive social critique might be possible, is therefore already a strong claim about the determinate characteristics of the particular society being analysed: only in the idiosyncratic circumstance in which a socio-historical context generates some kind of systematic potential for transformation, would this model of critique make any sense. Again, the first generation Frankfurt School theorists recognised this – and therefore drew the appropriate pessimistic consequences, when their particular theory of how capitalism might generate transformative potentials seemed no longer to apply.

Many forms of critical social theory appear to have stepped away from the vision of immanent critique sketched above – accounting for the existence of critical sensibilities in other ways, if at all, rather than attempting to locate determinate potentials for transformation that provide perspectives or standpoints that the critique expresses. Instead, the socio-historical context is often positioned as the object of critique – perhaps as something that provokes the recognition or mobilisation of certain critical ideals – but not often viewed as constitutive of the qualitative characteristics of critical sensibilities, by generating the potentials for particular kinds of immanent transformation. For this reason, many forms of social theory remain “pessimistic” in the technical sense of not identifying aspects of the socio-historical context that point beyond that context in determinate ways. This level of “pessimism” could be entirely appropriate, if our socio-historical context doesn’t have the strange characteristics required for some kind of systematic internal generation of transformative potentials. What I would like to explore in my presentation, however, are approaches that still try to “cash out” the instinct that something like an immanent and self-reflexive social critique might be possible – approaches that still attempt to conceptualise social critique as an expression of a determinate potential for transformation that is generated within our specific form of social life. More on this, hopefully, when I’m a bit less tired – and apologies for the rough and overgeneralised quality of these preliminary comments, which I’ve tossed here mainly so I don’t lose track of the chain of associations in the beginning-of-term crush.

22 responses to “Fragment on Theoretical Pessimism

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  6. Nate August 16, 2007 at 4:47 am

    Interesting stuff. Insofar as “[c]ritical social theory accounts for itself by showing how its own socio-historical context internally generates determinate potentials for transformation, potentials that are then expressed in the ideals or values articulated by the critique,” it seems to me that pessimism is ruled out for critical theorists by the existence of critical theory. As you said, “[t]he claim that something like an immanent and self-reflexive social critique might be possible, is therefore already a strong claim about the determinate characteristics of the particular society being analysed: only in the idiosyncratic circumstance in which a socio-historical context generates some kind of systematic potential for transformation, would this model of critique make any sense.” Presumably this would mean that the critical theorist could start from her own existence as critical theorist and work backward to look for the conditions of possibility (the potentials for transformation) of her existence as critical theorist. The turn to pessimism on the part of the first generation of the Frankfurt school could be thought of as a turn away from critical theory defined as the expression of potentials for transformation, perhaps the result of a failure to find adequate grounds/conditions of possibility for their existence as critical theorists.

    I’m curious, did the Frankfurt first generation retain their attempt at self-reflexivity after their pessimistic turn?

    take care,

  7. N Pepperell August 16, 2007 at 11:08 am

    Advance apologies here that I may not do the best justice to a response here – I have this cold, and Wednesdays are monster workdays for me, and the combination of the two means that I currently feel somewhat concussed… ;-P

    To start at the back: your phrasing is – perhaps unintentionally – causing me dilemmas. I’m fairly comfortable saying that they do lose self-reflexivity. I’m trying to decide whether I’m comfortable saying that they also stop attempting to be self-reflexive. Part of what makes this complicated for me is that Horkheimer and Adorno continue, in my opinion, to wield critiques of other thinkers that only really make sense if they were asserting the standard of self-reflexivity. Yet they – particularly Adorno – will also make comments about the overcoming of social contradiction… And they will also – Adorno and Horkheimer both – speak as though they are, in a sense, in a holding pattern – maintaining the memory of certain ideals that are sedimented in history, but are no longer actively constituted as a moment in the reproduction of capital – in a sense, they seem to conceptualise capital as having “outgrown” its role in the generation of emancipatory potentials – capital no longer “needs” those delicate mediations out of which potentially autonomous subjects might have been constructed…

    Given their interpretation of the situation, I think they essentially decide that morality requires the sacrifice of consistency – Horkheimer explicitly thematises this issue on a number of occasions. My favourite (which I’ll confess I’ve mentioned before on the blog) is the “Fable of Consistency”, from Dämmerung:

    In the fable, two poor poets are invited to accept a considerable stipend by a tyrannical king who values their work. One is disturbed by the taint on the money. “You are inconsistent,” the other answers. “If you so believe, you must continue to go hungry. He who feels one with the poor, must live like them.” Agreeing, the first poet rejects the king’s offer and proceeds to starve. Shortly thereafter, the other becomes the court poet. Horkheimer finishes his “fairy tale” by cautioning: “Both drew the consequences, and both consequences favored the tyrant. With the general moral prescription of consistency, there seems one condition: it is friendlier to tyrants than to poor poets.” (paraphrase by Martin Jay in The Dialectical Imagination)

    Leaving aside the “grand hotel abyss” interpretations of this sort of thing… ;-P I think it’s possible to suggest that the theme of inconsistency – of a sort of historically necessary inconsistency – runs through Horkheimer and Adorno.

    This feels like a sort of lousy answer to your question… But I guess I’m suggesting that they retain the desire for self-reflexivity, because they would, for want of a better term, prefer to be in a situation in which they could say: “so this is how the reproduction of the existing social form continuously generates material and ideal resources pointing toward the possibility for emancipation”. Given that they aren’t in a position to say this, though, my sense is that they recoil (as I also would have done) from the notion that they should “be consistent” with their theoretical principles, and bury the notion of emancipation. Instead, they continue to affirm that there was a missed revolutionary opportunity – something that revealed in the past, even if not something that continues to reveal in the present, the non-necessity of current unfreedom.

    It’s more complicated than this… Adorno continues to search for ways to ground revolutionary longings – in art, but also in the potential for the interruption of the linear process of conceptual thought – possibilities for the generation of critical sensibilities. It’s just that these possibilities aren’t really “socially immanent” in the sense that the concept of self-reflexive theory posits them to be. I’ve suggested above, of course, that it’s already a somewhat strange notion, that the source of emancipatory impulses should be socially immanent – that a social field should somehow, in the process of reproducting itself, systematically generate resources that point beyond itself in some determinate way, while still proving to be “successful”, over a long period of time, in reproducing itself anyway… I’m currently trying to see whether it might be possible to “cash out” this notion – whether it might be possible to reconceptualise and revise a notion of immanent social critique. But I’m not doing this because I see it as the only option – just as an option that, if it can be done, might provide the ability to thematise potentials for transformation somewhat more concretely than some other approaches can (this last point being something I’d need to develop considerably, before anyone should particularly take the point seriously).

    In terms of this:

    Presumably this would mean that the critical theorist could start from her own existence as critical theorist and work backward to look for the conditions of possibility (the potentials for transformation) of her existence as critical theorist.

    As expressed, this seems more focussed on individuals than what I’m after with the concept of self-reflexivity. The notion of self-reflexivity, for me, really isn’t about why theorists arise. It’s about what potentials a social field generates. A self-reflexive theory allows a theorist to demonstrate how the ideals the theorist deploys represent determinate potentials generated in identifiable ways within a social field. This, rather than an explanation of how a theorist arises, is the direct strategic aim of the concept.

    I do, of course, also argue that the experience of living in a context that generates such potentials has an impact on the sorts of intellectual and social movements likely to arise – but, in a sense, that’s a later stage of the argument, and not what I’m trying to capture specifically with the notion of self-reflexivity. Self-reflexivity instead does things like allowing a theory to demonstrate that it’s not romantic – in the sense of wanting to regress back to some earlier form of social life – or utopian – in the technical sense of calling for a form of transformation that would require the mobilisation of resources that don’t exist or that can’t be generated with the social and natural tools at hand. It also allows a theory to make a case for what determinate sort of transformation would be required, given what the theory is trying to achieve (i.e., is the abolition of private property sufficient for the abolition of capitalism; is the equalisation of material wealth sufficient, etc.).

    Self-reflexivity also provides a way for a theory to explore these same sorts of issues, with reference to other intellectual and social movements – with the intention of gaining a clearer sense of what potentials within the social field are expressed by specific movements, understanding a bit better why particular movements might “resonate”, and getting a stronger grasp on the likely consequences (including unintended consequences) of particular movements, if they were to achieve their own aims (or what sorts of “cascades” a movement could set off, or contribute to, even if failing to achieve its own goals). Analogous to Benjamin’s standard of making “history citable in all its moments”, we can try to use the sense of the potentials within a social field, to assess, not just the potentials that might be realised, but also the potentials that would likely be left behind, by particular movements.

    In terms of the theorist working backward from themselves – I have no “methodological” objections to this sort of approach, but my main point is that some approaches to critical theory – whatever their methodology – roll out an account of their social field that actually couldn’t account for the existence of critical sensibilities – the analysis of social reproduction is actually structured in such a way as to rule out the generation of critical sensibilities.

    This is my main concern: if the account of the social field renders the existence of a particular form of social or intellectual movement unintelligible, particularly when this is a movement whose ideals the theorist, in other respects, seems to be trying to express and promote, I think this can be productively taken as a sign that we should go back to the drawing board…

    Of course, we might go back to the drawing board (as, in some ways, the first generation Frankfurt School theorists did), and just not be able to come up with an analysis of the social field that demonstrates how its reproduction generates the materials for the sort of transformation for which we are trying to advocate – the presence of critical intellectual and social movements within a social field might in fact be aleatory, or at least not something that can be theorised as any kind of systematically generated potential routinely tossed out as an unintended side effect of social reproduction. This possibility can’t be ruled out a priori.

    In a sense, I suppose I push on the notion of self-reflexivity as an ideal for critical theoretical work both because I think a self-reflexive theory – if we can generate an adequate one – would be a powerful thing, and because this approach to theory pushes the theorist back into a confrontation with the adequacy of the theory to the concreteness of the social situation, which I think is a crucial confrontation to have. That, and I have at least some inkling that this form of theory is possible – and I have a sense of frustration and helplessness at the way in which quite important movements can sometimes come to be blindsided by dimensions of the social field on which I think such a theory could cast light…

    But this is all promissory note material – I can’t yet cash it out… Which is why the post above emphasised the peculiarity of the claims made by this approach – that the possibility of this kind of theory can’t be taken for granted.

    I feel enormously incoherent today… My attempt to explain the distinction between extrapolating backward from the existence of theorists, and what I’m trying to do, is particularly inadequate… There’s a decent chance I’d position this issue in a different way given greater clarity of thought. On the first generation Frankfurt School comments – perhaps Alexei (on resurfacing from the Hegel paper) could qualify and correct what I’ve said.

  8. Nate August 17, 2007 at 1:39 am

    hi NP,
    Thanks very much for the long reply – not incoherent at all (certainly less so than my questions!). I hope your cold gets better, and that your worklife becomes less concussive ASAP.

    I think this is my favorite part of your comment: “some approaches to critical theory – whatever their methodology – roll out an account of their social field that actually couldn’t account for the existence of critical sensibilities – the analysis of social reproduction is actually structured in such a way as to rule out the generation of critical sensibilities. This is my main concern: if the account of the social field renders the existence of a particular form of social or intellectual movement unintelligible, particularly when this is a movement whose ideals the theorist, in other respects, seems to be trying to express and promote, I think this can be productively taken as a sign that we should go back to the drawing board…”

    That’s a succinct expression of an important (and true) point.

    I’m not sure I was clear in my comments on critical theorists and working backward. Here’s an attempt at being clearer. The claim is that critical theory expresses potentials for transformation. If we call some work critical theory then presumably we believe such a potential exists and is being expressed. Insofar as one says “there is critical theory in the world” while holding to this definition of critical theory, then one is committed to a view that those potentials exist. Of course, I think the most honest approach would be to ask _if_ there is critical theory – if there are no potentials identifiable then the critical-ness of any existing theory is questionable as well. So that suggestion of mine looks like a dead end.

    I think there may be a problem of evidence, perhaps an epistemological problem – what counts as a potential for transformation? Clearly any actual transformation counts (though identifying those is also tricky and depends a lot on the criteria used and where one looks), but beyond that? In general, I’m fond of historical examples and looking for historical examples. That doesn’t get at the matter of how these potentials are systematically generated, it just says sort of “here’s some potentials actualized” to which one could add “and therefore critical theory is possible.” I suspect that doesn’t satisfy what you’re taking on, as it’s conceivable (though for me not imaginable) that there might be some point in history after which we find no new examples generated. All the arguments I have against that view (the “no future” or no more examples anymore view), despite my finding them convincing, feel a bit like cheating – in part because they involve changing the register away from history and toward things like how do you prove a negative, deflationist arguments against certain conceptions of truth, etc.

    Thinking of it now, it seems to me that there may be two things going on here. One is the matter of self-reflexive theories – we could run hypothetical scenarios or take historical examples whereby a theorist would understand their links to their present moment’s potentials and “demonstrate how the ideals the theorist deploys represent determinate potentials generated in identifiable ways within a social field.” Where “a social field” means “that social field with which the theorist finds herself confronted. The second is the matter of self-reflexive theory, whether it’s possible and under what conditions. As you said, this possibility can’t be taken for granted. I think these two are in tension, because if one goes far enough in not taking it for granted one could begin to doubt if this or that case of self reflexive theory is actually a case of self reflexive theory (just as for some any transformation is actually just a rearrangement of domination etc). The first I think is a matter of how specific social fields generate(d) transformative potentials. The second is a matter of social fields in general generating (or not) these potentials, how we can tell, etc. Does that characterization seem right to you?

    take care,

  9. N Pepperell August 17, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    In a sense – and apologies if I haven’t been voicing this clearly – my impulse is precisely to ask “_if_ there is critical theory – if there are no potentials identifiable then the critical-ness of any existing theory is questionable as well.” This is part of what I was trying to get at in suggesting that I don’t believe we can’t take the model of immanent social critique for granted – that we can’t automatically, in a sense, extrapolate back from the observation that there are folks who call themselves “critical theorists”, to the claim that the social field is systematically generative of some kind of determinate (and therefore theorisable) potentials for emancipatory transformation. Not being able to theorise potentials for transformation doesn’t mean transformation is impossible – it just means that we can’t expect to cast useful light on potentials for transformation via this sort of social analysis, and that theory becomes essentially retroactive – it remains within a situation where the owl of Minerva flies perpetually at dusk.

    I would take this to be something like what you have in mind, when you mention looking at historical examples and instances of actualisation: I would of course do this, too – historical examples and the observation of what is currently “moving” would be important to any critical theory. The question is, basically, one of whether, when we set about trying to make sense of what’s “moving” (and of what’s happened historically), we find that we can do this effectively with a theory that also thematises social reproduction in such a way that we can say that the form of reproduction systematically generates resources for something more than reproduction. If we can do this, then we can perhaps move a bit beyond a retroactive orientation, and begin orienting ourselves more adequately within our own moment, as well as learning whatever we can from previous moments…

    This requires, though, more than the notion that social reproduction be “non-identical” or “contradictory” – more than the notion that individual or collective actors can never be fully subsumed under a context, for example. It requires that we be able to say something specific about the form or qualitative character of the non-identical (not because this is the only way change could possibly happen – all kinds of random and, for that matter, nonsocial changes could happen – but simply because we couldn’t theorise potentials for change in any determinate way without being able to do this).

    What I’d like to write here is some kind of schematic gesture at how various forms of theory have tried to deal with this issue of “systematic non-identity”, and the difficulties I have with specific approaches to this problem – unfortunately I’m really flagging, and will have to pick this up, if it’s still relevant, when I’m feeling better.

    On your point though, about “how we can tell” – in a sense, of course this remains at the level of a kind of gamble: we’re putting forward an explanatory framework with the intention of orienting action – we’ll only know, in any strong sense, at a later point. On this side of history, we’re basically evaluating things like: does a particular theoretical approach increase or decrease our potentials for making sense of what we’re experiencing, in a way that also increases our potentials for action? But again, I’m flagging – this is a good and important question, but I just can’t do it justice today… Sorry for the half-gestures – and please keep raising and elaborating the issue – I’m never completely happy with how I try to tackle this…

  10. N Pepperell August 17, 2007 at 2:37 pm

    P.S. One further thought: while I would argue that critical theory becomes self-undermining when its understanding of social reproduction doesn’t render intelligible the kinds of transformation for which the theory advocates, this isn’t quite the same as arguing that the existence of critique means that specific kinds of transformation are possible. The fact that we “need” self-reflexive theory in order for critical theory to make a particular kind of contribution to orienting transformative action, doesn’t mean that such theory is possible…

    Of course, I think it is possible 😉 – and that we have some decent and still-serviceable starting points from which to build. But it helps (I think…) to recognise the strangeness and, in a sense, implausibility, of what this kind of theory is trying to do – to recognise that it’s actually making some claims about social reproduction that shouldn’t by any means be taken for granted or treated as obvious – I think framing the project in a way that recognises the specificity and problematic character of its claims, actually makes the project more… doable… Not least because, without this recognition, it can simply be easy to overlook basic questions about what dimensions of a social field a particular theory understands itself to be trying to express, and how those dimensions relate to what is being criticised.

    But I’m really too fuzzy to be allowed to speak in public… ;-P

  11. Nate August 17, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    hi NP,

    I hope you unflag (unfurl? or how about depose?) soon in a satisfactory fashion. It sounds like your schedule is really giving you a kicking. This is all very helpful stuff.

    I sort of take it as axiomatic that these potentials exist, and further that they will come about in the economic sphere, specifically via some people who work for wages. I’m kind of vulgarly marxist. I don’t know to what degree I could actually demonstrate that to someone who was strongly unconvinced/hostile to being convinced, though, and I’m even less sure I could do so via philosophical argument – I’d be more likely to extrapolate from their experiences of work and so on and say “yeah, that thing that sucks about your job? that’s what wrong with all of our society! and that small act to improve your job that you took, the longterm plan is to do that at the level of our whole society!” Which is to say I may be a bit of sophist on this, though a thoroughly convinced and sincere one.

    I’m still not clear on two or three things. First, it seems to me that much of what I’ve read of the marxist tradition including moments where it doesn’t look particularly philosophical to me involves claims to potentials for change. At a minimum, big seizing up and so on – objective breakdown – though the positive component which produces something new varies a lot more. Is that along the lines of what you have in mind? What confuses me is that a lot of that doesn’t look to me like philosophy, I don’t know why that confuses me, I guess I assume you’re talking about a philosophical approach (for instance, you reference Adorno rather than Ernst Mandel or whomever). This is partly a question of idiom and register – looking at say interest rates or health care coverage rates and real wages and so on, vs talking more like Adorno talks like. Sorry, that doesn’t feel very clear but I don’t think I can do any better.

    Also, I’m not clear if the inquiry you have in mind is into some specific social field (X mode of production or national economy or gender arrangement or whatever, like say US capitalism today), or if it’s a matter of sort of meta-inquiry, inquiry into what there would be within any inquiry (of the type you have in mind) into any social field whatsoever. Maybe it’s both, since you’re not sure this inquiry is possible in the present. Am I correct that you think it was possible at some point in history, and that it actually existed? (Sorry if inquiry’s not the right term, I mean whatever the action of the self-reflexive critical theorists would be.)

    I’m very interested in this, as I vacillate a whole lot about whether theorizing can only ever be retroactive. Though some historians, like Herbert Gutman, say that one of the best things about being oriented to the past is the way it helps make the present feel less set in stone. I’m not sure how that fits in with this conversation but it feels relevant. I also vacillate a lot as to whether we can say much of use about nonidentical and nonsubsumed actors/context/etc. On the one hand I have an impulse that we can’t say much at all, but on the other hand I’m strongly committed to the view that those actors have thoughts and say things – put more strongly, that they engage in something which is or at least approaches to theory and which should be respect by philosophers – as these actors take the actions which actualize their potentials (all of that looks very torturous, I can’t think better phrases, sorry, hope it’s clear).

    Anyhow, I hope you feel better.

    take care,

  12. N Pepperell August 17, 2007 at 4:59 pm

    Oh now, this is just evil – how can you raise these sorts of questions (which are all really central things for me), when I’m under the weather?! 😉

    I’m not completely sure where to start – this will probably be a bit random, quite apart from my being sick, because you’ve raised issues that have my thoughts scattering in all kinds of directions.

    I’ll try starting at the back again (and this may just end up being a series of schematic “I agree” or “I’m not sure” responses, rather than anything substantive at this point). I agree that being oriented to the past helps the present feel less set in stone – and some other forms of theory, focussing on what I tend to call “abstract” possibilities for rupture or for nonsubsumption or non-identity with social context, can play this role, as well (myself, I tend to think historically, so historical reflection is more personally useful, but I see this kind of historical reflection to be somewhat similar, in its critical role, to some other lines of theory focussed more on questions of ontology or the character of social life per se).

    My basic question has been: is this as far as we can go, in terms of creating a theory that can assist with orienting action? Just to take a crass example: not even the political economists “naturalised” capitalism in the sense of pretending the world had never known any other form of production or distribution – they “naturalised” it by saying that it was the only form of production and distribution that would release particular potentials for material wealth, personal freedom, etc. (regardless of what one thinks of this – I’m just trying to comment on the “form” of naturalisation – hopefully I’ll be able to go somewhere with this point in a bit). Classical sociology – say, Durkheim – might be very well aware of the downsides of capitalism but, by treating capitalism, essentially, as a form of “detail division of labour”, tacitly suggest that, if you want a detail division of labour (which is to say, if you want a complex, diverse, post traditional form of social life), then certain kinds of dysfunctionality are automatically going to follow: so there is a level of “critical” discourse here, but it’s in a kind of stoic-tragic mode (particularly clear in someone like Weber) – e.g., “it’s unfortunate that such things happen, but this is the inevitable cost of a complex, internally differentiated society like ours”, etc.

    To me, theories that point out historical difference, or point to the abstract potential for non-identity or rupture, don’t go far enough to be able to address these sorts of objections: someone can rightly reply – yes, yes, so things could be different – we all know that – but the question really is, can things be better? Can you actually achieve some meaningful transformation that preserves much of what’s good about what has been created, while doing away with what’s bad – or are you proposing something that actually falls behind what we already have (romantic), or that requires such a context-shattering transformation that the leap is simply too vast (utopian)? To me, the notion of an immanent social critique is intended, in part, to address these sorts of questions – to go beyond the assertion that change is possible, into an exploration of why transformation might actually be a viable project.

    The idea, for me, isn’t so much to persuade someone who is already set against the notion of transformation, as it is to address what I would regard as the “rational core” of the conservative reaction: it’s an important question to ask, whether the sorts of dysfunctions we’re criticising are simply unavoidable symptoms of “complexity” or of “post-traditional society” or similar. I take the dialogue between immanent social critique, on the one hand, and classical political economy and sociology, on the other, basically to take the form of critical theory insisting: not complexity, but a specific kind of complexity; not dynamism, but a particular kind of dynamism; not science and technology, but science and technology in a particular social role, etc., etc. So, where conventional theory sees a level of inevitability (not because it thinks things have always been a certain way, but because it sees our novel historical situation as bringing its own necessary and intrinsic downsides), critical theory insists on the inessential character of what it wants to transform. Because the historical situation is novel, however, simply pointing to historical examples won’t completely do the job: we find ourselves in the very odd situation of needing to figure out how to reflect on latent potentials buried within a situation we’ve never experienced before (and this problem continues to be projected with us over time, as modernity’s own dynamism constantly shifts the ground on which we’re trying to stand).

    The notion that this kind of reflection can take the form of analysis of social reproduction, where social reproduction is understood as systematically generative of potentials for transformation – this is the option that tempts me, but that I also think is a fraught enterprise, and I can understand why – not least for historical reasons – many people have moved away from the concept. (I can elaborate on this point, but it’s sort of boring, relative to the other issues in this discussion – I may just leave it for the thesis… ;-P You probably have a reasonable sense in any event.)

    In terms of some of your other questions: I actually am trying to theorise a specific social field – although for purposes of my current work, I’m defining “specific” in a very abstract way, trying to think about continuities in capitalism as a form of global social relation over a very long historical period, and trying to thematise some very abstract points about the dramatic reconfigurations in the 1890s and 1970s (to pick some problematic, but gesturally handy, dates). This doesn’t at all mean that I think this is the only relevant level of analysis – it’s just a level of analysis that allows me to cast into relief certain trends in the attempt to theorise what capitalism is, and then to set up a sort of minimal set of things a theory of capitalism might need to explain.

    In a sense, I do see it as a “meta” inquiry (I think Sinthome has occasionally referred to my work as a “meta theory”) – but as a meta inquiry into features of capitalism, rather than into features of “the social” as such (I tend to be sceptical about attempts to generalise to any sort of social field – not because one couldn’t say anything, but because I tend to think that determinate transformative potentials will be more specific to particular social fields, rather than aspects of social fields as such). Ideally, this kind of work provides at least some conceptual grist that could be useful for a more fine-grained analysis of a more “local” contemporary social field that is, among other things, wrestling with dynamics characteristic of a capitalist context.

    When I say that I’m not sure this kind of inquiry is possible, I’m not actually aiming for any kind of strong scepticism or uncertainty – my point is more that, when theorists take for granted the notion that something like immanent social critique is possible, they might actually be missing important dimensions of the context they need to analyse – they might be assuming (as some forms of Marxism at one point did) that all human societies generate some kind of determinate potential for transformation, for example – and therefore missing that it would actually be a rather peculiar thing, if our society did. I’m trying to denaturalise the concept of this approach to critical theory – without, however, drawing the first generation Frankfurt School conclusion that this form of theory is no longer possible.

    In other words, I think the first generation Frankfurt School folks were correct in recognising quite clearly the relationship between this approach to theory, and some very unusual characteristics in the social field itself. I don’t, however, understand the generation of transformative potentials in the same way they did, and therefore don’t agree with their notion that there was at one point a central social contradiction, and this contradiction has now been overcome. In a sense, I actually disagree with both elements of the thesis of the “one dimensional” society: I don’t think that a bi-polar contradiction (the image that underlay the “two dimensional” society) is the best way to understand emancipatory potentials, and I don’t think potentials for transformation have ceased to be generated. Of course, what I think is relatively unimportant, until I can actually show some of it to other people, and have them not send me off for psychological treatment… ;-P But this is the impulse, basically, that informs my work.

    I’m tempted to squash together your Adorno vs. Mandel question, with the comments you make in the previous paragraph about “I sort of take it as axiomatic that these potentials exist, and further that they will come about in the economic sphere, specifically via some people who work for wages.” I tend to see myself as a sociological theorist (sort of), and to take capitalism, not as a form of economy, but as a very peculiar form of global social relation, that involves unintentionally enacting a historical pattern over time, involving the phasing out of the need for labour to be expended in particular concrete forms, and the reconstitution of the need for labour in new forms.

    This pattern structures our economic life (and a great deal else besides), but isn’t “economic” – i.e., it has nothing intrinsically to do with the sorts of things a society (even a complex, post-traditional, diverse, etc., society) needs to do, in order to reproduce itself “materially”, and the direct, immediate “causes” of this pattern can be quite complex, change over time, and do not necessarily reside solely in what we would consider an “economic sphere” (I realise that this sounds rather basic – sorry about this – I’m not trying to teach you to suck eggs: it’s just that most of what I say is fairly basic, but some non-basic things can sometimes be unfolded from it – in this case, some non-basic things that connect some seemingly “economic” problems to some philosophical ones).

    So my position would be that potentials for transformation do have something to do with “capitalism” and with the dynamics associated with this form of social life – but that this isn’t quite the same as saying that the transformation would come about in the economic sphere, or among people who would necessarily mobilise for transformation around their identity as wage labourers (although this can of course happen – it’s just that I regard mobilisation around this identity as contingent on a range of other historical elements that might or might not occur in particular times and places, without this precluding some form of transformative practice). Again, not saying anything profound here, and hoping this isn’t coming off as droning on and on about what everyone already knows…

    I won’t be able to explain very well at the moment (even if I were feeling better, it’s something I struggle to express well), but, even though these points are really basic, the implications of the underlying conception of capitalism can be worked out in ways that touch on the sorts of things people associate more immediately with “economic” analysis (the direct issues that arise in the workplace, interest rates, etc.), but also in ways that touch on certain kinds of “philosophical” questions – and, I would argue, cast some light on things like the emergence and qualitative form of the science-social science division, notions of “materialism” (in the natural science sense) and “secularism”, and other concepts that don’t necessarily immediately seem related to capitalism understood as an economic system. So, depending on what sorts of things I’m thinking about the time, I probably sound like I’m doing very different kinds of theory, but somewhere in the recesses of my brain they all connect up to this issue of how we define capitalism, what we think it is, whether we can meaningfully think it as “contradictory” – but with a more nuanced notion of “contradiction”, etc.

    Fading again… (this time, you’re probably relieved – sorry for the long post… You just touched on a lot that interests me a great deal, and I’ve done particularly poor justice to your Adorno-Mandel question…) I did want to say that I particularly love this: “I may be a bit of sophist on this, though a thoroughly convinced and sincere one.”

    I think I occupy this subject-position a fair amount too… 😉

    Thanks again for the comments – hopefully I won’t have driven you off with over-basic points! Take care…

  13. Alexei August 18, 2007 at 8:59 am

    Hi all,

    I’m happy to see that this discussion is still moving in ever more interesting directions. And I thought I might throw in my own two cents (again). First off, N.P., I’m wondering whether a critical theory should understand itself in action orienting, or action guiding terms. While I realize that this has typically been the programmatic goal of those theories that are generally characterised as, ‘critical theory,’ do you think it may actually be the case that such an ideal over-reaches itself?

    For example, as any ‘citizen’ of a former communist country could tell you, the five year plan was a critical theory that was action orienting. And it was a plan devised to determine the various critical potentials within a given societal organisation, and to actualize them. What’s more, they worked to a certain extent. The Soviet Union brought itself from a largely agrarian, ‘backwards’ country to roughly to the same level of industrialization as western countries in a matter of years by building railways to better disseminate its (primary) resources, etc. But, clearly, the five year plan — even under ‘honest’ conditions — isn’t the kind of emancipatory, action-guiding theorisation that you’re looking for.

    This is not to say, of course, that (critical) theory needs to remain pessimistic. But maybe that the very idea of action orienting critique itself needs to be rethought. I mentioned to Sinthome that perhaps what is need is transformative insight, rather than transformative action, and I think I had something like the above question in mind. Or, to phrase the matter slightly differently, perhaps the very idea of what is to constitute an emancipatory potential needs to be shifted in a particular way — i.e. away from some kind of model of (re)distributive justice, utopian cornuopia, etc. But such a shift might mean taking immanent social critique for granted, at least as an initial assumption to be (sic) critically unfolded.

    In a sense, I got the impression that you might be asking a very similar to these questions/issues, when you wrote,

    my impulse is precisely to ask “_if_ there is critical theory – if there are no potentials identifiable then the critical-ness of any existing theory is questionable as well.” This is part of what I was trying to get at in suggesting that I don’t believe we can’t take the model of immanent social critique for granted – that we can’t automatically, in a sense, extrapolate back from the observation that there are folks who call themselves “critical theorists”, to the claim that the social field is systematically generative of some kind of determinate (and therefore theorisable) potentials for emancipatory transformation.

    but i still got the feeling that you’re conceiving the category of emancipatory potential in something like transcendental, or structural terms. That is to say, I felt (and I’m sure i’ve missed something here), that there is some non-immanent criteria for what an emancipatory potential would look like. And I can’t seem to find how the identification of such a potential would lead to something that could be action guiding. Would it be too much to ask for some clarification?

    I’m also curious about how one can ask your if-question concerning critical theory without someone already being engaged in critical theorising. In a sense, the question provokes a positive reply, “Yes, there is a critical theory — mine,” precisely because the question needs to be posed within a given theoretical framework. Simply put, it needs to be posed either within the context of someone else’s theorisation (i.e., immanently) or within the context of one’s own theorization (which presupposes that what one is doing is ‘critical theory’ in our sense of the term. But in either case, the question becomes somethign like a performative tautology, no?

    Ok, normally I would pause for a moment and re-read what i’ve just written to see if i’m talking nonsense, but dinner is about to burn, so i need to run. If it turns out that what I’m asking is incoherent, you have my apologies. Though i do expect an explanation as to why it’s incoherent! 😉



  14. N Pepperell August 18, 2007 at 11:55 pm

    Hey Alexei – Good to see you resurface – hope this means the paper has gone/is going well. I’m still unfortunately a bit out of it, so I almost certainly won’t do your questions justice here.

    My guess is that I mean something much “weaker”, if this makes sense, by theory seeking to orient actions – I’m thinking something more Benjaminian – a theoretical approach that enables the recognition of endangered potentials, more “secret heliotropism”, less theoretical avant garde… 😉

    I’d agree with the notion that critical standpoint shouldn’t be equated with a specific substantive endpoint – whether a vision of the subject, or a vision of society – with a closed character. I’m trying to develop some kind of vocabulary (and I should admit that I’ve probably only been phrasing this in terms of “orienting action” for about a month, so I’m not hugely wedded to this particular formulation… 😉 But I shifted to this expression because earlier expressions were irritating people in different directions – and so the terminological juggernaut continues for me…) that both expresses this point, but that also expresses that critique still expresses something determinate – that (and this to address some concerns Sinthome has raised in other places) critique is not a simple “being against” or an abstract negation.

    On the other hand, though, before I move too quickly from my recently-adopted phrase, I do think that we’re looking for certain forms of practical orientation from a critical theory – precisely due to the sorts of issues you raise in your example of the Soviet Union above: the issue isn’t some sort of voluntarist valorisation of action for action’s sake, but the ability to thread our way through the likely consequences and implications of mobilisations (intellectual and social) within a complex, dynamic social context.

    I might need to hear more about why you’re hearing the discussion of emancipatory potentials as non-immanent? Is it just that you can’t see a way to conceptualise such potentials without it equating to some closed vision of the kind of society this would entail? I tend to be Benjaminian in how I think of emancipatory impulses – not that I think Benjamin provides more than a set of gestures toward an immanent grounding (and, as it happens, I don’t tend to like how he thematises capitalism), but I think such a grounding is possible – just very complex to provide in a rigorous sense (and therefore, among other things, easy to lose in the shorthand that can sometimes happen in the back-and-forth of discussion). But as I said, I may need to know more about what’s striking you as non-immanent in how I’m approaching the issue.

    I might also need to know, when you ask how the awareness of a potential could guide action: what other purpose would you see the identification of a standpoint of critique to have? I’m asking this in an open-ended way as, even in conceptions that are quite careful to position the standpoint of critique as a counterfactual, what is expressed by the standpoint of critique is still a set of ideals intended to orient practice (even if the practice in question is only the enactment of a continuous critical process)? I’m suspecting we may just need to spend a bit more time going back and forth on the terms we’re using for particular concepts – I’m sure there’ll be substantive differences, but my guess would be they aren’t quite as substantial as this discussion is suggesting.

    In terms of the “if-question” above, I wouldn’t actually aim this sort of thing at someone else as a criticism: my main intention above has been to clarify standards that I’ll need to meet myself. I’m not trying to establish standards for telling someone they aren’t a critical theorist (in my opinion or theirs ;-P), but rather to explain (in response to Nate’s question) that I am not trying to extrapolate from the existence of people who call themselves “critical theorists”, to conclude that particular kinds of social potentials exist. I’m also saying that I don’t take for granted – as some kind of a priori claim about social contexts as such – that a social context will generate transformative potentials. And I’m saying that, if I can’t thematise the social context in a way that can identify such potentials, then I am not a critical theorist, in the way that I am using that term. 🙂

    Apologies that this is very rough, and probably talking past your concerns to a large degree. I’m much more tired than normal – perhaps I can do a better job in later rounds. (And apologies as well that I’m just posting without editing – too tired to edit!)

    Take care…

  15. Alexei August 19, 2007 at 4:57 am

    Thanks, NP, for the kind words concerning my Hegel paper-writing; the thing is nowhere near done, but i’ve managed to frustrate myself enough that I need to take a step away form it for the moment (I can’t decide, in other words, if I’m just being wacky and weird for the sake of being weird — the quintessential definition of PoMo interpretation! — or if I’m on to something; maybe I’ll post parts of the piece at home, to garner some feedback).

    Anyway, my basic worry, I guess, about critical theorising amounts to something like the following: there may actually be a limit to how immanent an immanent critique can be. I take it that Benjamin’s invocation of theologico-transcendent elements hints at such a problem. But before I get carried away on a Benjaminian riff, let me try to articulate the problem a little more precisely.

    Insofar as it is possible to theoretically account for one’s ability to theorise one’s contemporary situation, and account for the historical developments that makes such a self-reflective, or self-reflexive theorisation possible, we seem to be caught between two basic problems. On the one hand, there’s the oft-noted problem that theory is always already too late (if i’m not mistaken, you mentioned this feature of theory recently, but I can’t remember where). But this is tantamount to saying that the potentials for transformation that a theory identifies are themselves potentially something of the past, something lost to everything but an historical effected consciousness, or are actualized, used up, by the very act of theorising them. On the other hand, while identifying certain potentials within a given historical moment seems to be an immanent process, applying the labels, ’emancipatory’ of ‘transformative’ seems to require what Habermas is fond of calling a ‘context transcending move.’ That is, we seem to require a non-immanent, speculative or transcendental, frame from which these potentials can be evaluated. As an example, consider Agnes Heller’s remark about Adorno’s aphorism, “The Whole is the Untrue [Unwahr].” She asked, “where was Adorno when he made this comment.”

    So I guess my concern is, as you say, “just that you [alexei] can’t see a way to conceptualise such potentials without it equating to some closed vision of the kind of society this would entail” — with the added proviso that I can’t see how one can do this immanently.

    So with this said, maybe i should answer your other question, “what other purpose would you see the identification of a standpoint of critique to have?”

    Well, I’m not terribly sure, to be honest. But since I’ve managed to overdose on Adorno, I tend to think these days that perhaps the very idea of coordinated action at the macro level (i.e. social movements, demonstrations, and the like) might not be effective at all. The eye opener, of course, was the global demonstrations/protestations concerning the invasion of Iraq. They were impressive indeed, but absolutely ineffectual. Same with the protests against the WTO, etc. while these might fall under the category of what you’ve called abstract negation, or what Sinthome calls merely ‘being against,’ I think they might also highlight the very impossibility of large scale action coordination in general.

    And perhaps like those who participated in May ’68 (I’m thinking in particular of Kristeva), I’m beginning to think that something more like individualistic interventions, or some kind of moral perfectionism — or even, if I may phrase it this way, a rehabilitation of Heideggerian Authenticity — is what is needed.

    Again, though, I’m not trying to offer a worked out alternative, but just a few thoughts I’m tinkering with, when I have a spare moment. hopefully, they give you an idea of my basic worries about contemporary critical theory. One the one hand, we seem to be constantly bound to some variety of context transcendence (just to name a few: the Universal validity necessary for the formal pragmatics of communicative action, the theological moment of redemption that theories of the Exception require, or the speculative identity of thought and action that recognitive theories need, etc.), which remains, as it were, a fact of reason. On the other hand, we seem to be faced with the guilty conscience of the ineffectuality — if not the perniciousness — of large scale coordinated action.

    But, before I leave off on this pessimistic note, I would like to call attention to Sinthome’s claim about the enunciation

    we risk falling into theoretical pessimism so long as we fail to take self-reflexivity into account, for we come to see ourselves as passive sufferers of these social forces. […] That is, this proposition forgets that the minimal condition for the possibility of enunciating the proposition that we are effects of structure is a marginal distance from structure, a minimal deterritorialization from structure, a small crack or line of flight within structure.

  16. N Pepperell August 19, 2007 at 11:29 am

    This is good – thanks for this. Actually, I think I share a number of your concerns, but tend to express them slightly differently, in order to shake some slightly different potentials out of them. Let’s see if I can give a sense of what I’m up to.

    First: I have strong objections to what I have tended to call “context shattering” visions of critique (which, to be honest, I tend to think of “abstract negations”, and, without trying to speaking for him, I suspect are some of what Sinthome has in mind when speaking about critique as a “being against”). In other words, if by terms like “emancipation”, or “transformation”, or “critique”, we think that we’re constituting something that breaks fundamentally from what currently exists (and if we therefore, for example, aim critique at anything that is currently associated with social reproduction, and see as “progressive” only those things that we identify as somehow not involved in any way in social reproduction), then I think we are tacitly or explicitly appealing to a non-immanent notion of emancipation.

    To me, the form of theory that does this is often – tacitly or explicitly – bound together with what in the Frankfurt School context tends to get called a “one dimensional society” thesis: with the notion that the reproduction of existing society is a linear, unidirectional process.

    An immanent social theory attempts to thematise social reproduction in a different way – as non-linear, and not unidirectional – but also not random. What this means is that social reproduction points in more than one direction, generates different kinds of potentials that don’t entirely coincide with one another – and therefore immanently constitutes what I sometimes call “irritations” that point toward paths that are both socially “available”, socially “plausible”, but also not taken.

    A common way to thematise this two dimensionality is to set up a contrast between two existent dimensions of society – the forces and relations of production, for example, or the proletariat as world-historical-subject and the capitalist class. I share what I suspect is a fairly common allergy to these sorts of conceptions, as they endorse some element of what is, elevating it into a fixed vision of what ought to be.

    I’m trying, among other things, to see whether it’s possible to rethink the concept of immanent critique so that it’s capturing something more “virtual” – something that exists, that has already been and is actively continuing to be constituted within the process of social reproduction – but that does not align fully with any existing social group or institution, such that critique is not aiming for the more complete realisation of something that already exists, but is instead pointing to the potentials embodied in a more diffuse set of available shapes of consciousness, habits of practice, material resources, and other things, and asking: what might we do with such things, that we cannot do, so long as social reproduction continues to unfold in its current form? What sort of world would be more adequate to the sorts of creatures we have shown ourselves that it might be possible for us to become?

    So I do conceptualise theory as “lagging” the constitution of potentials (or, I see theory as potentially part of a process of collective recognition of the implications and potentials of what we have constituted, and therefore as part of a process in which it is both product and producer). But since the potentials I’m trying to identify have a “virtual” character to them – they are both real, and unrealised – I don’t think this inevitably places us in the “owl of Minerva flies at dusk” situation.

    I did note the “owl of Minerva” issue recently – but I often do – in order to complain about it: I don’t see this as an inevitable dimension of theory, but as an avoidable practice – this is in spite of the case that I also tend to treat theory as something that lags the constitution of potential (which, in turn, I tend to see as something that often happens inadvertently and unintentionally).

    I tend to think that it’s easy to fall into a kind of trap when an historical transition takes place that shakes loose or makes more attainable certain critical insights – that we tend, instead of examining the connections between these new insights and our own moment, we are vulnerable often to doing something I call “fighting the last war”: we often – without thinking about it – aim emergent critical sensibilities “backward”, to criticise elements of social or intellectual movements that suddenly seem clearly flawed, without asking where this sudden gift of insight has come from.

    To me, this situation is analogous to gaining a new perspective from which to view a situation because we’ve moved to a new place – by all means we should enjoy the stunning view of the surrounding territories to the fullest. But as well as gazing critically at these now-distant lands (“did you ever notice that ugly feature over there?”, etc.) – instead of just applying new insights to older forms of social and intellectual movements whose flaws now seem painfully clear – we do at some point also need to look down at the ground under our feet and ask, “Whoa!? When did I wander over here? Where the hell is this place? What’s this stuff I’m standing on, that I can suddenly see all these new things?”

    I find it endlessly frustrating when we don’t at least try to do this – or we do this in a manner that treats ourselves somewhat asymmetrically to what we criticise. Unfortunately, the most common way to criticise outgoing positions is still simply to treat them as “mere” errors – and therefore to treat the ground we’re standing on as truth and, tacitly, to treat truth as a causal factor – for us, at least – we tend to be happy to look for other causal factors for the points of view of which we’re critical…

    I’m obviously shorthanding here, and unfairly so. I’m also, if this is unclear, not trying to suggest a relativistic position: there’s a difference between suggesting by the form of an argument that “truth brings itself being”, and saying “we accidentally taught ourselves something with really interesting implications and potentials” – the latter, to me, is more adequate to notions of immanent critique, and treats newly emergent forms of thought symmetrically with outgoing ones.

    At any rate: as you can probably tell by now, I often write about this – but as a rant in relation to things I find frustrating, not as a notion of the intrinsic limitations of critique.

    So now that I’ve introduced a largely off-topic rant into the middle of the discussion (you’ll know now never to raise that “owl of Minerva” thing when I’m around… ;-P Sorry – I find it amusing when I react to things like this – sorry to drag the conversation so far off track) – what were we actually talking about?

    The basic idea is: yes, theorising socially immanent potentials does entail (in any version of immanent social critique with which I’m familiar) that those potentials be “in the past”. I’m suggesting, however, that this past can be a Benjaminian one – and here I’m thinking about the distinctions Benjamin draws between “the past” as we intuitively think of this term, and Benjamin’s strange Leibnizian monadic conception of the past as a present moment within the present time. Or Derrida’s notion of the present as haunted. Or Marx’s notion (which, as it happens, I was just writing about) of dead labour – of a kind of historically sedimented potential that, due to determinate characteristics of social reproduction, continue to be reanimated in the present time, because their reanimation is integral to reproduction.

    All of these are notions of a past that has not passed – appeals to a very strange vision of social reproduction that somehow manages to drag a specific kind of past along in its wake, such that the present is perpetually non-identical with itself in a very unusual way, haunted by images of potentials it has not allowed to be. Some sort of notion like this, I think, is required for an immanent critique, if that critique is not aligning itself with some already realised dimension of the present moment. For this kind of theory, transformation is redemption or fulfillment – it is a waking of the dead – our dead, whom we recognise as ours because they have haunted us for so long. This is, I think, what Benjamin was after with the mystical-sounding terms in which he cloaked his materialism.

    In terms of whether someone like Adorno had a framework adequate to this – I don’t personally believe he did, but this isn’t because I think phrases like “the whole is the untrue” are intrinsically self-undermining. I just don’t think that Adorno’s understanding of the social would allow him to “cash out” this kind of statement in immanent terms. (I’d like to add a pile of caveats here, about myself, about Adorno, and about forms of critique that are not seeking to be immanent to the social, but I’ll leave them aside for present purposes, and just register the existence of various twinges of guilt…)

    I should note, though, that I’m not operating within a framework that understands emancipatory potentials as something primarily oriented around the constitution of some macro-sociological Subject. A child of my time like we all are – and perhaps making this mistake along with the rest of us ;-P – I tend to be more “spontaneist” in my inclinations, and also to be trying to thematise decentred patterns of contestation. On another level, I’m probably not as worried as some other theorists about the prospect of whether we might be “past” the time of large-scale global transformation: to me, this perception both seems to focus on very specific parts of the world, and also to “exceptionalise out” the massive transformations that periodically cascade through capitalism as a global social relation. In other words, I think we have large-scale mobilisations and dramatic structural transformations all the time. I think the issue that confronts us is more one of the kinds of large-scale transformations we will have, than of whether we will have them – and, since the context itself is already “in motion”, the task is more one of tilting the direction of a dynamic process. All of which opens up onto the importance of smaller-scale and diffused contestations – which are the daily tremors that shake loose our awareness of the potentials haunting our time, constituting resources – “subjective” and “objective” – and helping us show ourselves what might be possible.

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  18. Nate August 20, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    Wow. NP, thanks for the substantial response. I read your response to me but need to reread it later, and read the subsequent comments. For now before I go to sleep, just one quick remark – my offhand comment focusing on waged laborers isn’t because I think the category of identity (as in “i’m a worker!”) is particularly important, it’s that I think people acting in those locations (regardless of or for any number of identities) will be the engine for the kinds of changes I’d like to see. Definitely on a small scale which already happens a little, and in the longer term and scale too. (I’m a vulgar marxist and syndicalist, I guess.) More later. I hope you’re feeling better.
    take care,

  19. N Pepperell August 20, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    Nate – In case I catch you before you tuck yourself in, I’m sympathetic with this, as well: “people acting in those locations (regardless of or for any number of identities) will be the engine for the kinds of changes I’d like to see” – while also just trying to express that I don’t see any opposition between this, and the cultivation of other forms of contestation that may be aimed at or situated within other institutional spaces. Certain kinds of organisation may be more or less effective in different circumstances – and I would see the longer term and larger scale needing to confront the sort of issues the syndicalist movements pose. Personally, I have a strong Lafargue-ian tilt, if this makes sense?

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  22. ej January 2, 2009 at 10:26 am

    I want to try to understand your thoughts from a much more simplified and localized problem of social change.I belong to and interact with fundamentalist Orthodox Jews. My interest as well as many of my co- workers in our little part of the blogosphere is to bring about social change in a very traditon bound society. There are many issues including homophobia, xenophobia and the second class status of women.I’ll concentrate on one very typical problem…how to introduce bible criticism into a society that believes the bible is the revelation of God’s word.The constraint is not to destroy this Orthodox world since it is deeply loved and an endless buffer against the harsh world of late capitalism, but to somehow keep it vibrant while bringing about some changes in belifs.

    If I understand what you are saying the following is necessary though not sufficient: We must understand our own situation, how we come at this with values we have internaized from other sources, how Orthodoxy revived itself after the war into a church militant, the role religion pays in the formation of our selves, the place we occupy in the larger Jewish society and in the world and on and on…all of which you call self reflexivity.

    Second we must try to investigate the optimal conditions for developing change from within….how to make the relevant attitudes acceptable without generating new defenses and counter movements.

    All moralizing from above, from some absolute position of reason and rationality is both non-dialectical and a failure to understand what you call the immanence of values…how they are tied to existng social and economic structures.

    I could go on , but I would first like to know if what I am saying, my reading of your comments reverberates with anything you have in mind.

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