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 ‘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.