Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Free Associations

Sinthome from Larval Subjects has written a beautiful reflection on self-reflexivity and the formation of collectives, beginning with the lovely multi-layered play on words in its title (free associations indeed), organised around a series of reflections on Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, and ranging both widely and masterfully through concepts from critical philosophy, social and anthropological theory, and psychoanalysis. Among many, many other things, Sinthome points back to, and expands upon, some of the themes recently outlined in my own sketchy placeholder post on the concept of theoretical pessimism. Sinthome concludes:

The theory of social-formations that speaks of social structures, systems, forces, and so on and so forth is not unlike the account of the billiard ball that passively suffers the laws of mechanics. That is, agents are simply seen as props of these structures. Yet as Sartre points out, we must distinguish between the knowledge of being and the being of knowledge (CDR, 24). That is, 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. Yet, to make a Pepperellesque observation, what this proposition forgets is, namely, itself: the subject enunciating the proposition. 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. That is, one must have in part already have stepped out of structure in order to discern structure as an operative force of conditioning in the life of the subject. Just as the symptom must come to be seen as split or divided so that the analysand might discern it as a formation of the unconscious (i.e., the analysand must no longer see the symptom as directly the problem to be solved, but rather see the symptom as signifying something other), similarly structure must already be split and fissured to enunciate the claim that we are effects of structure. What the theoretical pessimist forgets is precisely his own position of enunciation: he treats himself as being outside of structure, even as he makes the claim that he is but an effect of structure.

Yet here emerges the question pertaining to the formation of collectives. A collective, as itself a critical entity, as itself a function of the breach in structure, must either punctually or gradually have encountered this breach in structure. Yet what are the conditions, by what confluence of forces, does this breach appear? In many respects this is the ten million dollar question. The elephant in the room that no one is talking about is the old Marxist question of the conditions under which the proletariat will be awoken to its own revolutionary vocation. Of course, social structure has changed significantly and we now know that the proletariat can no longer be identified with industrial workers tout court (this as a function of the shift to post-industrial capital and the emergence of communications technologies that have changed class relations… Indeed, Capital demonstrates that “class” is a far more fluid concept than it is often made out to me). Echoing Sloterdijk’s melancholy question, “why do we continue to do it when we know that we’re doing it?” Where is that crack that might function as the impetus for the emergence of a new people? What would be the conditions under which this crack might emerge. The fact that we’re theorizing it indicates that it is already there, if only virtually or potentially. What would it take for it to become actual? As usual, I have no answers and I’m not even sure that I’m posing the questions in the right way.

The excerpt simply doesn’t do the post justice – the original should be read in full. (And anyone who has any suggestions for a less ugly term than “Pepperellesque” can let Sinthome know…)

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