Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

In Process [Updated]

Just so Alexei doesn’t feel too different, I thought I should point to the current Now-Times (hmmm – can one have past Now-Times?) post on self-reflexivity “self-referential, performative actualization” that continues the cross-blog discussion on self-reflexivity begun at Larval Subjects, and that also responds to Gabriel Gottlieb’s reflections (non-reflexive reflections?) on Fichte over at Self and World. I tried to intervene in this discussion earlier, but have been told that I’m discussing reflexivity, not self-reflexivity, so I suspect I’ll continue to be selfless, and stay out of this… 😉 (At least until I’ve gotten a bit of work done today…)

Alexei’s concluding passage gives a taste of the post as a whole:

I take it that this final characterization of intellectual intuition in terms of an ontological difference between a given self, and the meaning of subjectivity, to be precisely what Pepperell is trying to suggest with the notion of self-reflexivity. That is, Intellectual intuition qua self-reflexive activity is an immanent development of the human potentials to act and understand, one that begins from a concrete, historical situation (although i can’t find the page, Fichte actually calls the development of the Absolute self, ‘History from a pragmatic perspective), and gestures towards an absolute ideal of human agency and freedom. It is critical, in other words, because it does not merely re-affirm the status quo, but recognizes its limitations and tries to move beyond them.

Very nice to see a roving discussion that highlights, from a range of different perspectives, how the sometimes very abstract-sounding debates around issues of (self-)reflexivity are motivated by the concern to understand the possibility for emancipatory transformation.

Updated to add: I just wanted to mention that I’ve tossed a few comments over at Now-Times to continue this discussion. Hopefully Alexei won’t mind if I cross-post a bit of one of my comments over here, as these observations may serve a slightly different purpose for regular readers of this blog, than they do in the context of the discussion of Fichte over at Now-Times and, if nothing else, I wanted to leave this as a placeholder for myself:

…the form of the presentation suggests that there is something already there – latent – that is then realised historically through some process of externalisation and actualisation. This is a common structure for an argument attempting to explain the origins of critical sensibilities: I tend to characterise this sort of argument as an account that describes “nature realising itself historically”. I also tend to see it as a non-self-reflexive form of argument in a very specific sense: it (tacitly or explicitly) takes as given the qualitative characteristics of the phenomenon it is analysing (critical sensibilities or whatever else) – it sees the historical process as a form of uncovering of what it posited as already existing in some latent form.

A self-reflexive theory, in the sense in which I mean the term, seeks a more thoroughgoing analysis of the constitution of critical sensibilities – such that these sensibilities are not latent, aren’t there waiting to be uncovered, aren’t a sort of target toward which we progressively reach ever-more-closely – but are themselves products through-and-through, constituted to their core, not pre-existing the process that constitutes them.

The distinction is a bit difficult to express, but the basic idea is: does a theory act as though its object was discovered or uncovered (in which case, I would suggest, its object is actually no longer a product or a producer within a process – it instead sits outside the process, which serves only to uncover what was already there, unconstituted, even if the existence of this unconstituted thing was only ever discovered in a particular time and place, when time was ripe). Or does a theory take seriously the notion that its object is a product (and, if a self-reflexive product, then also a producer that refashions itself out of the products generated by earlier rounds of production). This latter mode of theorisation, I would suggest, does not see in history a telos that points toward the realisation of some determinate thing (some latent object progressively uncovered or realised over time), but is instead more open-ended in its conception of what history can “achieve”: it doesn’t necessarily believe that we know what we can become, what history can do, what subjects can be – none of which precludes critique of the ways in which we are constraining ourselves in the present time from realising the determinate forms of freedom that we have taught ourselves to desire and shown ourselves are possible.

To shift again to Marx: Marx treats the commodity as a sort of telos latent within capitalism, generated by a historical process, progressively more and more clearly realised over time. But this teleological movement is Marx’s image of domination, not freedom: it is this with which we need to break, to forward emancipatory goals. This is Benjamin’s leap in the free air of history – breaking the treadmill of progress – a step that we can take, however, only by using those materials generated by this process of progress itself – those documents of barbarism, envies for air we could have breathed, experiences, resources and desires generated nowhere else, but in and through the reproduction of that very thing we now need to overcome…

At least, that’s my take on self-reflexive theory… 😉


3 responses to “In Process [Updated]

  1. Sinthome August 14, 2007 at 8:34 am

    N.P. I wonder if one productive way of situating the stakes of this discussion wouldn’t be in terms of Habermas’ famous claim that Foucault’s position falls into a performative contradiction in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. I realize that you’re not a Foucaultian and that you don’t have any specific commitment to Foucault, however, it seems to me that the issues here are deeply analogous.

    I’m entering dangerous water here, as I don’t have a great familiarity with Habermas’ own work and haven’t read this text in over a decade. From what I recall of The Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas feels compelled to introduce the normative requirements of dialogue as a sort of a priori regulative ideal of all discourse situations. That is, there’s an idealism embodied in his position that is reflecting in the absence of a historicization of these normative frames. I happy to concede that his position might be more nuanced in this and that he might provide an account of the historical genesis of these norms, but I don’t recall finding it there.

    At any rate, this move strikes me as responding to the sort of issue he discerns in Foucault. If I remember the critique correctly, Foucault shows the historical nature of different forms of knowledge and how all discourse is bound up with power, yet speaks as if he himself is free of this problem. How is it, in other words, that Foucault is able to make these sorts of claims? This is an issue where questions of the self-reflexivity of the social field become extremely pertinent. If we adopt an immanentist ontology or epistemology, we’re committed to the thesis that everything (including theorists) have a genesis in space in time, such that there’s no view from the “outside” or “above” where the theorist herself wouldn’t be caught up in the social relations and forces characterizing the field. The social field can be thought as a sort of machine that must reproduce itself from generation to generation and from moment to moment, such that each person in this field is itself an iteration of that field.

    Given this vulgar over-simplification, the crucial theoretical question not to be missed is that of how, within this field of power and the social, resistances are generated in the form of both emancipatory praxis and critical theory? How, in short, does a social field that functions for the sake of its own reproduction come to generate critical potentials transformative of that field? How does the social field come to produce a crack or fissure that would produce something other than that system. Or, a put a bit more preciously, how is it possible within such a field and system of individuation to think otherwise? I suspect this question will be missed so long as the focus of questions of self-reflexivity is on the self-reflexivity of the subject as in the case of Descartes, Kant, Fichte, and Husserl for the simple reason that such theoretical orientations abstractly posit the transcendental subject independent of the social field in which it is individuated, thereby confusing a fetish (the reflecting subject) with a reality (the social field and the subjects produced in that field).

  2. N Pepperell August 14, 2007 at 11:18 am

    I think it’s the right impulse, to focus the issue back to the core steak stake – and I agree with your (depreciousised) formulation here:

    the crucial theoretical question not to be missed is that of how, within this field of power and the social, resistances are generated in the form of both emancipatory praxis and critical theory? How, in short, does a social field that functions for the sake of its own reproduction come to generate critical potentials transformative of that field? How does the social field come to produce a crack or fissure that would produce something other than that system.

    With the issue being, as well, that I would try to thematise, not just the possibility for a break in the abstract, but the possibility for determinate kinds of breaks: this was what I take to have been Marx’s original gamble – that it might be possible for a critical social theory to say something fairly specific about the specific sorts of intellectual, material and social resources generated within a particular context, that somehow pointed beyond that context. I take it that Marx’s “turning Hegel on his head” involved a suggestion that at least the social field characteristic of capitalism was, in certain specific senses, posing itself a “problem” that could be solved only with its own abolition – was generating a range of tensions, shapes of consciousness, forms of being in the world, material resources, practical habits, etc. that in various ways were both bound together with the reproduction of this field, but also sat in tension with it.

    You’re correct on Habermas not historicising his normative standards: history does figure in his account, but it does so essentially externally – his account takes the form of a description of the historical realisation of something that he then posits as natural (because embedded in universal structures of communication). He therefore does have an account of why critique comes to be generated at a specific moment in time, but not an account of the constitution of particular critical sensibilities. Instead, the sensibilities are positioned as a latent potential, held back by religious and traditional constraints – and therefore emerge once those constraints have been lifted. In this sense, Habermas’ critical sensibilities are thematised as negations – as what remains behind when arbitrary and artificial social and cultural determinations have been stripped away. This “historical” process that brings these critical sensibilities to awareness is therefore (from my point of view) an anti-historical one – a process of disenchantment – a process of the peeling back of the merely historical, to reveal an underlying universal. {warning: small edits made above, to reduce (or increase) the incomprehensibility of the original ~ 11:45}

    So on one level, Habermas spends quite a lot of time talking about the historical emergence of various things (including many things I’m not mentioning here), but the historical explanation never reaches “inside” what he’s trying to explain, to account for its qualitative characteristics (which therefore remain, essentially, naturalised or explained functionally). His account is a bit like watching someone meeting the formal requirements for an immanent theory – addressing the sorts of issues an immanent theory would ordinarily address – but without actually adopting an immanent frame.

    But yes, these are the sorts of questions he was raising about Foucault – the sense that the theory was unfolding a conception of social context that didn’t provide any insight as to how that kind of theory would ever arise within that context.

    And yes, I suspect that you’re right about the “status”, for want of a better word, of the subject within this sort of immanent critical theory: the subject (its structures, its capacities) becomes one of the potentials generated within a broader relational field (in a sense, the field itself becomes one of the potentials generated – and generating…)

    I probably wouldn’t contrast the “fetish” to “reality” (and I’m not taking you to have done this in earnest – I’m just picking up on the expressions you use, in case the point should be confusing to people reading on) . The fetish, in Marx at least, has a “things appear as they are” aspect. In other words, it’s not so much that the fetish is an illusion, as that, in spite of the fact that it isn’t an illusion, it is nevertheless also not a “negation” – not some kind of natural substrate that remains behind when everything else has been stripped away – not “material”. So the argument about the fetish is an attempt to look seriously at how things are, to understand how things are as an affirmation, as a positivity, as something determinate and generative – in a situation in which, for determinate reasons, those shapes of consciousness and forms of practice associated with the fetish form tend to present themselves as a materiality stripped of social determinations – their specific determination, according to Marx, is precisely their active social constitution as material or as abstraction.

    Not suggesting that Marx is the only way this sort of analysis could be carried out – but just gesturing at one example of the sorts of analysis involved: an analysis that, without trying to “penetrate” what is being analysed, to poke through illusion to get at an objective conception of truth, nevertheless grasps the constituted character of what is being analysed – and the constituted character of the analysis itself. There is no outside – but this doesn’t mean that there is no transcendence. The key lies in engaging in a form of analysis that moves beyond negation, and explores a social field as complex and determinately conflictual source of potentials – for reproduction and transformation.

    This feels a bit murky – I think your version was much clearer… ;-P I’ll blame it in the cold…

  3. N Pepperell August 14, 2007 at 11:33 am

    I should perhaps add that, when I mention “saying something fairly specific about the specific sorts of intellectual, material and social resources generated within a particular context, that somehow pointed beyond that context”, I don’t take this to mean that something about the current context would predefine the sort of personhood or collective life we should seek to achieve (although the theory might be able to make intelligible why certain visions of emancipation arise and resonate at particular moments). So the goal, as I see, really is an analysis of resources – of potentials – of nuclei around which we can creatively crystallise.

    *slowly drifting further and further off topic, in response to random associations*

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