Rough Theory

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Self-Reflexivity Beyond the Self

So of course I’ve been thinking about the recent conversations on self-reflexivity, at Larval Subjects and Now-Times – and, specifically, thinking about my own tendency to take a term that has quite a long-standing history (as the Now-Times’ post so elegantly demonstrated) and use the term in a somewhat perverse and idiosyncratic way. Now-Times pointed the notion of self-reflexivity back to the issue of reflection – and, specifically, to the “constitutive activity of cognitive life through which any experience is possible” – to a form of theory that attempts to grasp “the condition(s) for the possibility of all experience by articulating the synthetic, unifying activity of the β€˜I’ via the relationship of its understanding of itself and its understanding of an object”. The resultant analysis is masterful – I enjoyed the post a great deal.

And yet I couldn’t help but be struck by how much this is not at all what I have in mind, when I suggest that “self-reflexivity” is an important standard for any theory with emancipatory intent. When I raise issues of self-reflexivity in relation to my own work, I am generally not trying to grasp something about cognitive life (historicised or transhistorical) – certainly not trying to talk about the conditions of possibility for experience as mediated by the activity of the “I” (whether the “I” is understood as personal or intersubjective). I may well walk about such things in various contexts, but these are not the sorts of issues am seeking to problematise, through the concept of “self-reflexivity”.

Self-reflexivity, for me, is really a concept that attempts to grasp whether a theory is able to articulate the determinate ways in which a given social context generates the potential for its own emancipatory transformation, even as that context also generates the potential for its own reproduction. A critical theory becomes self-reflexive, for me, when it can point to the determinate potentials for transformation that are voiced in its own critique, and when, as a parallel move, it can also identify the determinate potentials (or constraints) that are voiced by alternative forms of theory and practice. The question captured by the concept of self-reflexivity isn’t so much “how does the subject come to know?”, but “is the theory analysing society only in terms of that society’s potential for reproduction, or does the theory also point to determinate potentials for transformation?” The term “determinate” is important here: all critical theories assert that at least some aspect of society shouldn’t be reproduced, or that social reproduction entails unnecessary forms of constraint. Non-self-reflexive critical theories, however, engage in a form of argument I tend to call “abstract negation” – rejecting what they oppose, but without also identifying determinate potentials for moving beyond what is being criticised; explicitly theorising the reproduction of what is being rejected, without explicitly theorising the immanent generation of potentials for transformation (including the existence of critical sensibilities themselves). As a consequence, such theories tacitly exceptionalise themselves, thematising the reproduction of specific forms of constraint, without equivalently thematising determinate potentials for contestation and critique (and, often, leaving us to wonder how contestation or critique should ever arise, or treating contestation or critique as essentially ungraspable within our current situation).

The consequences are practical: it is difficult, I would suggest, for a non-self-reflexive theory to assist in the process of orienting action – to differentiate between forms of “being against” (not all forms of anti-capitalism, for example, just by dint of being anti-capitalist, are equivalent in their emancipatory potentials); to distinguish between forms of change (in a dynamic social context, the successful achievement of change is not equivalent to revolution, and the reproduction of capitalism in particular rests on transformations that can – and have – been mistaken for revolutionary transformations); to assist in the process of “brushing history against the grain” – of recognising how certain forms of practice or shapes of consciousness that have arisen in, and are integral to, social reproduction, can nevertheless be shaken loose from their current roles and turned to emancipatory purposes; etc.

Sinthome’s description of pessimistic theory casts some light on what is involved:

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.

The notion of self-reflexivity put into play here is therefore not so much concerned with how we conceptualise the reflecting subject, but more with how we conceptualise the social field – and, specifically, whether our conception of the social field provides any tools for understanding how contestation or critique could ever arise. When a critical theory analyses a social field using only tools that can grasp social reproduction in its current form, the theory places the object of its critique in the frame, but exempts itself – omitting the position from which a particular form of society comes to appear contingent and wanting. Such an approach, I would suggest, fails to conceptualise the most important thing: the determinate potential for transformation, whose possibility is suggested by the very existence of critique.

No one owns theoretical terms, and my use of the term “self-reflexivity” to express such concerns, although not unique to me, may be unnecessarily obscure. The underlying issues, however, I do think are important – in slightly different ways, depending on whether someone is trying to unfold a socially immanent critical theory, or whether someone is operating in a broader conception of immanence. They revolve around the sorts of questions Sinthome asks at the end of the post that stimulated this discussion:

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?

The concept of self-reflexivity is an attempt to specify at least some aspects of a form of critical practice that can best help us cast light on such concerns.


11 responses to “Self-Reflexivity Beyond the Self

  1. Sinthome August 13, 2007 at 1:26 am

    Admittedly this is what I took you to be talking about long ago when you first started talking about “self-reflexivity”. That is, I took you to be calling for something like a phenomenological critique a la Husserl, or perhaps something like what Bourdieu does in his analyses of the theorists sociological position and the habitus that produces as a propaeduetic to any sort of investigation of the world. Or again, perhaps you were alluding to some sort of historical analysis such as we find in Gadamer or Heidegger, as preparatory to any engagement with the world. In each case I took you to be referring to the theorist and the theorists position. This impression was exacerbated by your use of the term “critique”, which refers back to Kant’s call to first analyze the knowing subject prior to making claims about the world.

    Perhaps the confusion would be cleared up simply by adopting a convention like “reflexivity” rather than “self-reflexivity”. If I’ve understood your claims correctly, what you’re asserting is that the social field is reflexive in such a way that it produces its own potentials. That is, we don’t need to refer to transcendent standards or values outside the movement of history to account for emancipatory potentials, but rather these emerge from within situations themselves.

    The “cash-value” of this move is that it also allows us to more clearly identify dominant oppressive tendencies within the social field and therefore avoid unwittingly reinforcing these tendencies within our theorizing. Take Marx, for example. When Marx analyzes the commodity form and reveals that it is the result of a specific form of labor, while simultaneously comparing the social relation underlying Feudal systems to that of commodity capitalism, he allows a number of possible theoretical formations that would reinforce this social form to be sidestepped. For instance, Marx criticizes bourgeois forms of theorization that treat the individual as a sovereign and abstract subjectivity that simply chooses its social relations, showing 1) how this form of subjectivity emerges only under a particular form of production (along these lines he argues that Protestant Christianity is the most complementary religion to production under capitalism due to its abstract conception of men as autonomous), and 2) allows the critical theorist to avoid reinforcing this particular social configuration as they would through asserting transcendent rights or purely autonomous individuals as the ground of political engagement.

    I know this isn’t quite what you’re getting at with reflexivity as the other horn would be to account for how, precisely, forms of resistance emerge socially and collectively within a particular configuration of social relations at both the level of critical theories and actual praxis. However, I take it that this other dimension is also one of the most valuable aspects of reflexivity.

  2. Sinthome August 13, 2007 at 1:37 am

    This passage from Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason (what a paradoxical title with respect to the Kant-Hegel engagement!), gets at what I think you’re saying about the theorist:

    The objective and the subjective are indistinguishable; the worker produces himself through his work as a certain exposure of the world which objectively makes him the product of his own product. (103)

    And earlier:

    what does it mean to make History on the basis of earlier conditions? I then said: if we do not distinguish the project, as transcendence, from circumstances, as conditions, we are left with nothing but inert objects, and History vanishes. Similarly, if human relations are a mere product, they are in essence reified and it becomes impossible to understand what their reification really consists in. My formalism, which is inspired by that of Marx, consists simply in recognising that men make History to precisely the extent that it makes them. This means that relations between men are always the dialectical consequence of their activity to precisely the extent that they arise as a transcendence of dominating and institutionalised human relations. (97)

    Descartes, Kant, and Husserl lack self-reflexivity precisely to the extent that they present a sharp division between the subject and the object (yes even Husserl), where we must first bracket the existence of the world and analyze our own subjectivity, prior to speaking of the world. Yet the subject’s relation to the world, others, and history is dialectical, such that it cannot be said that there is one thing, a subject, and another think, an object, where the two could be divided. Rather, they’re only found in their interpenetration and reciprocal development. As such, reflexivity cannot be reflexivity of a subject, but is always receptivity of a social field as the subject-agent emerges within a social field that she both constitutes and which constitutes her. It’s truly a shame that no one reads Sartre’s Critique due to the stain of his earlier existentialism. It really is a treasure trove with regard to all these questions.

  3. Alexei August 13, 2007 at 2:35 am

    If I may offer the following clue for how I’m orienting myself in this discussion, and why I’ve given myself such a lead up to ‘self-reflexivity,’ I would note the metaphorical transfer (synecdochal, to be exact) that underwrites our discussion. That is to say, I’m weary of claims like, a ‘critical theory is self-reflexive’ because it silently moves from ‘the writer was self-reflexive’ through a claim like ‘the written text embodies a certain self-reflexive procedure of its author’ to ‘the theory itself possesses a certain self-reflexivity.’ The widening scope of ‘self-reflexivity,’ in other words — from the self-reflexivity of an individual thinker, to the expresion of a writer’s self-reflexivity, to the self-reflexivity of a text, independently of its author — might make it look like the problem has changed.

    What I was hoping to intimate in my post (here) was that transcendental philosophy originates with precisely the same fundamental problem as critical theory — though to be sure, the emphasis on experience, its conditions of possibility, and the unifying activity of the subject have now been historicised. And such a historicization is to be understood in terms of the intersubjective formation of an agent, rather than a subject — i.e. a doer, not a knower. Or, to rephrase the matter along Blumenbergian lines, what I’m trying to trace is the occupation and reocuppation of roughly similar models of the world.

    This said, if we’re aware of this metaphorization of theory, then it becomes a great strength, for we can now genealogically trace the currently effective emancipatory conditions that are available to us. We can, in short, identify something that may have been lost beneath the surface of our technical vocabulary. If, on the other hand, we lose sight of our own metaphorical transfers, we’re going to run into trouble (i.e. a text cannot be ‘reflexive,’ unless that’s a fancy origami technique).

  4. N Pepperell August 13, 2007 at 4:19 am

    Some preliminaries for both of you: it’s the middle of the night here, and I’m awake only because I’m sick and can’t sleep – conditions that don’t bode well for coherence of response… πŸ˜‰ So apologies in advance if this response is scattered and off-point…

    Alexei – Many thanks for this. I’ll confess a twinge of guilt when you mention that you’re already weary of the issue – given how often I bring it up (just ask Sinthome… ;-P), I suspect I’ll irritate the hell out of you with it. πŸ™‚ Perhaps we can begin a process of unpacking the issues in a preliminary way, and see whether your weariness persists.

    My initial reaction is to suspect we’re heirs to slightly divergent genealogies – theoretical speciations. I’ll grant that I’m likely using the term “self-reflexivity” in an idiosyncratic way, but I’m not using the term in any sense in which it could be sensibly applied to a writer – or to a text (I wonder, though, if rob wants to intervene on your point about whether a text can be self-reflexive?).

    I understand that there may be approaches where there could be synecdochal transfer of the concept from some notion of a self-reflexive theorist to the sorts of things such a person produces – but this presupposes that the originary referent is the author or individual subject. There are, though, sociological traditions that deploy concepts of self-reflexivity in a sense quite decentred from subjectivity. Such traditions probably contribute more directly to my use of the term, than do the genealogies you have suggested (not to say that there is no relation between the two, but only to note that metaphors of self-reflexivity have had some time to become naturalised and to acquire their own network of associations outside the tradition of transcendental philosophy).

    Self-reflexivity in my work – and Sinthome gets this right above (without suggesting that Sinthome would necessarily agree with the term or with what I then do with it analytically) – is a property of a social field. I call theories “self-reflexive”, not because the theorists who generate them are “self-reflexive” in the conventional sense, or because the theories follow some specific procedure or reflect back on themselves in a way that demonstrates some specific methodology or thought-process, but rather because their core analytical categories capture this self-reflexive property of the social field.

    In this sense, the genealogy of the term “self-reflexivity”, as I use it, would probably be traced more directly to Marxist notions of “social contradiction” than to the problem of the conditions of possibility for the subject (historicised or otherwise). I say this, of course, realising that these two problematics – that of developing a historicising response to transcendental philosophy, and that of expressing the non-identity of a social field – have themselves often been historically intertwined, leaving us with an admittedly complex legacy. I’m simply pointing to the potential for a divergence in the meaning of the concept of self-reflexivity, as deployed in different settings.

    On another level – and I’ll apologise in advance for the truncatedness, as this point is a bit difficult for me to develop here – I am specifically critical of attempts to centre critical theory on analyses of intersubjectivity – and of the tendency to equate “the social” with “the intersubjective”. Realising that this won’t mean much at this point, my position would be that central dimensions of contemporary society – dimensions that are important for understanding shapes of consciousness, patterns of social reproduction, and potentials for transformations – simply won’t be captured adequately by the attempt to transcend the limitations of theories of the “subject” via theories of the intersubjective constitution of meaning.

    My position on this may be complete nonsense, of course – and there would certainly be no reason for anyone to be terribly interested in how I’m hand waving toward the issue here. I mention the issue only to suggest that a different set of genealogical concerns may apply – and that it’s at least possible that something might get lost in the shuffle, if you begin from the assumption that all forms of critical theory are retracing roughly similar models of the world. I’m open to the concept – certainly there are complex issues to be thought through, in terms of tacit notions of agent formation in the kind of theory that I do. But I’d suggest we explore one another’s positions a bit, before we pre-emptively leap to the verdict that we’re trying to do roughly the same thing, in roughly the same way: perhaps this will prove to be the case – but we might learn more from one another if things prove otherwise… πŸ˜‰

    All this said, I want to be careful to acknowledge the core of your point: most approaches that are committed to a notion of self-reflexivity similar to the one I am trying to deploy, do also understand themselves as interventions (often quasi-Hegelian ones) into the problem of the conditions of possibility for the constitution of the subject – and, yes, they generally both historicise and attempt to conceptualise the potential agency of the subject, and thus see themselves as transforming the terms of the problem as posed by transcendental philosophy. My gut instinct is to say that whether they are successful in transforming those terms may depend on whether they predicate their theory on intersubjectivity – but this is an area where I could easily be wrong. Nevertheless, I would suggest that this issue is separable from the sorts of questions I am trying to raise through the term “self-reflexivity” (however ill-starred this term might be for what I am trying to express).

    Sinthome – Yes. πŸ™‚ I had some questions I had wanted to ask you – basically along the lines of whether you’d like to criticise the focus on the social that remains in the concept as I’m outlining it here. My sense from your comments above is that at least the most irritating dimensions of my focus on “self-reflexivity” might have been allayed by some of the recent discussions – that self-reflexive theory in this sense is at least attempting to be an engagement with the world, rather than the stipulation of a set of preconditions for that engagement. I was just curious whether you wanted to press on other issues (aside from the obvious terminological one).

  5. Alexei August 13, 2007 at 6:03 am

    I’m sorry to hear about your flu, N. I hope you recover quickly!

    Anyway, just a few quick thought, concerning your response: first, let me address a little guilt of my own. you wrote:

    I’ll confess a twinge of guilt when you mention that you’re already weary of the issue – given how often I bring it up

    I should have said ‘wary’, not ‘weary.’ you have my apologies for that rather infelicitous typo.

    Past that, I would also like to express my agreement with you concerning your use of ‘self-reflexive.’ I think it’s a useful concept indeed. And i think it has a completely distinct meaning from the one i’m tracking (Sinthome’s suggestion also sounded like an elegant way for me to avoid any confusion — i.e. “reflexive” might just do the appropriate kind of work. But I guess i’m still thinking through your more ‘sociological’ conception, so I should probably think about the matter a little more before saying anything substantive).

  6. Gabriel Gottlieb August 13, 2007 at 7:40 am

    In my mind, and I am certainly biased here, Fichte is the great thinker of reflexivity and self-reflexivity. I posted on this today here. Regardless of whether self-reflexivity is or is not limited to descriptions of self-activity, in such descriptions a structural account is given of the nature or different natures of reflexivity which can be employed outside of theories of subjectivity. The first thinkers I’m aware who did this self-consciously were the German Romantics who did in fact think texts and social theories could be, and even more, should be self-reflexive, or so it seems.

  7. N Pepperell August 13, 2007 at 9:44 am

    Alexei – lol! Don’t worry about the typo – the reality is, I suspect some people are weary that I keep raising this topic – but by dogged persistence and unshakable willingness to irritate everyone who does me the favour of reading what I’m writing, I suspect I’m slowly getting enough people who understand what I’m trying to say, that perhaps they can now shift to telling me how to say it… πŸ˜‰ (What’s more amusing is that the term “self-reflexivity” evokes a completely different misunderstanding when I’m talking, say, to sociologists (although, in that case, the term “reflexive” might not solve the problem).)

    At any rate, for the moment I’m happy to accept the provisional compromise of using “reflexivity” for the concept I’m after (with, I’m sure, occasional slips – I’ve been using the term “self-reflexive” for this concept for a long time now…), and perhaps something better still will come along.

    Thanks for the well-wishes – unfortunately this seems to be a year when every virus in Australia has my number…

    Gabriel – Many thanks for this. Quick side note: your link didn’t seem to point to anything, and so I’ve tried to correct it to what I believe you were intending – please let me know if I haven’t gotten it right (would seem a pity to point your link to, say, someone else’s post on Fichte self-reflexivity…). ;-P

    I’m going to remain out of the way of the question of whether texts can be self-reflexive, mainly because my diving into this issue will probably blur the (somewhat narrow) meaning I’m trying to give to the term “self-reflexivity” above – happy, though, for others to enter this fray… πŸ™‚

    I enjoy that you parse the “reflection”/”reflexivity” issue in the post at your site – nicely done – I’d be interested in hearing you develop further your suggestion that the notion of reflexivity need not be limited to subjects (recognising that a comment box might not be the right place for this, and this is presumably an issue you explore in greater detail at your site – which, I must apologise, I won’t be able to explore properly until I’m over this cold…).

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