Alexei from Now-Times has written an extraordinary piece On the Concept of Reflection, which builds on elements from the recent discussion of self-reflexivity over at Larval Subjects. To be honest, at the moment I’m finding Alexei’s piece too perfect to respond to – I seriously doubt I have anything useful to add, but want at least to point readers to the piece if they have been interested in (or confused by!) the issue of self-reflexivity as it has been loosely discussed here from time to time.
Alexei situates the problem of self-reflection on the terrain of a theory of judgement – reminding me (and here I should stress that I’m not trying to gloss Alexei’s piece, but instead leave a placeholder for myself) that, in my various meanderings on the topic here, while I spend a lot of time tossing around terms like “critical standpoint” or “critical ideals”, I’m not sure I’ve ever spelled out clearly that the strategic intention of the notion of self-reflexivity, within the context of a critical social theory, is to ensure that the theory can assist in orienting action – can contribute to the task of making critical judgements without the need to reach for a transcendent ground, by pointing those judgements back to determinate potentials generated by the social field to be transformed, such that the theory speaks with the voice of those potentials (rather than, as Sinthome has occasionally expressed the issue, voicing itself solely as a rejection or a “being against” – as what I tend to call an “abstract negation”).
My earlier placeholder on theoretical pessimism was motivated by the sense that many forms of critical theory had currently moved away from this vision of orienting action based on an immanent social theory, had moved away from pointing critical judgements back to the determinate potentials generated within a social field. I was then, essentially, asking whether it were viable to rethink the possibility of immanent social critique in a way that might overcome some of the impasses I’ve discussed (and had others discuss) occasionally on this blog.
But back to Alexei! Alexei suggests that, in order to back our way in to the concept of self-reflexivity, it might first be useful first to… er… reflect on the concept of reflection – and specifically to thematise the relationships between subjectivity, judgement, and reflection. Alexei organises the discussion around the concept of the transcendental subject, tracked through the works of Descartes, Kant and Husserl:
At its most basic, the notion of a transcendental subject captures what we might call the original spontaneity, or constitutive activity of cognitive life through which any experience is possible. As an essentially reflective theory of subjectivity, it attempts to uncover the condition(s) for the possibility of all experience by articulating the synthetic, unifying activity of the ‘I’ via the relationship of its understanding of itself and its understanding of an object. Or, more simply put, the notion of a transcendental subject articulates how two concepts – the concept of the subject itself, and the subject’s concept of an object – are coordinated, or synthesized in a manner that (to use a slightly problematic term) grounds all experience in this unifying activity. Hence, we may reformulate it as a Reflexionstheorie of the subject, which inquires into the possibility of experience. And we need to understand its theory the transcendental subjecting as essentially is a theory of judgment.
I’m hesitant to summarise the other sections, as the original is quite beautiful, and will suffer from translation – I’d rather readers check out the original, which will more than repay the reading.
I take this piece to represent a sort of promissory note – a beginning. As it stands, Alexei presents an analysis of a self-reflexive theory of judgement as something bound with a theory of a transcendental subject – in a movement that extends from the cogito through to notions of intersubjective constitution of meaning through reflection on historically-sedimented potentials. I found myself wondering whether Alexei intends to follow this piece, with further reflections on what happens to the concept of “self-reflexivity”, when it comes to be carried over (tacitly or explicitly) into approaches that aim themselves against the concept of the transcendental subject (in any of these forms)? On what is perhaps a related point, I’m curious whether Alexei intends to suggest that Husserl’s particular approach is adequate to the task of understanding the historical or constituted character of shapes of consciousness (and here I’m aiming myself, I think, at the connection suggested in the post between historical sedimentation and intersubjective achievements)?
Apologies for not writing more substantively on this – I’m in a busy period here. I am, though, excited to see these issues thematised with such clarity, and am looking forward to seeing how the discussion develops over time.