Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: August 2007

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… 😉

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 ‘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.

Mirror Mirror

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.

Nuncstans

So I’ve been feeling guilty at not having gotten back to my off and on commentary on Hegel’s Phenomenology. I expect this guilt to increase, as I’ve now somehow managed to get myself invited to present a paper on the subject of “Hegel and Solidarity”. Given that I’ve accepted, this suggests I should perhaps do some more intensive writing on Hegel. And solidarity. Or something like that.

Since I’m currently occupied with other things, I thought I should at least refer readers to a fantastic new critical theory blog with a Benjaminian tilt – Now-Times, whose early posts suggest that we can look forward to engaged and thoughtful explorations of the blog’s chosen themes of “historical, aesthetic and political issues from the perspectives of Phenomenology and Critical Theory”. Author Alexei is currently working through Hegel’s Phenomenology – with posts up on the Introduction and Sense-Certainty, as well as on general reading strategies – well worth a look!

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…)

Turning the Tables

Lumpenprofessoriat has tugged on some of the threads from my recent post on Devaluing Labour. Lumpenprof raises explicitly one of the issues that was in the back of my mind when I wrote the original post – the common perception that the rise of information and communications technologies has entailed a fundamental transformation in the nature of capitalism – and then provides more robust references to Marx’s discussions of technology in Capital:

Marx devotes the longest chapter in Capital, Volume I to the topic of “Machinery” precisely in order to explain capitalism’s enthusiasm for large-scale mechanization in terms other than the highly suspect utopian notions of labor-saving devices being used to free workers from the need to toil. For Marx, machinery as used by capital is one of its most ingenious and devious strategies for extracting ever greater quantities of surplus-labor from workers. Digital machines are no different. Capital loves computers because they make workers more productive, cheapening commodities in general, and cheapening the commodity of labor-power in particular. Thus, allowing workers to donate an ever greater share of their labor time to capital for free.

That work resulting in the production of digital commodities strikes us as so different from work that produces other sorts of commodities is perhaps simply the latest version of the ability of the commodity form to dazzle us that Marx describes as the “fetishism of commodities.”

I did have one quick question, on the concluding passage:

Digital commodities seem even more clever than wooden tables, and evolve out of their computerized brains ideas yet more grotesque. They seem to take on a life of their own — they move, grow, replicate, spawn, and evolve — and so hide and obscure the human labor they embody.

I agree with the main point here – I see nothing in digital commodities that is different in terms of the role they play within capitalist reproduction to other sorts of commodities (this doesn’t of course mean that new technologies can’t introduce novel potentials for the development of new forms of subjectivity, embodied relationships, etc., but it does mean that there is nothing intrinsically non-capitalist about the new technologies). I tend, though, to describe Marx’s strategic intention slightly differently (and this may just be a matter of phrasing and emphasis). The emphasis in the passage above seems to be on the fetish as something that hides or obscures – and therefore as something Marx’s critique is trying to strip away, in order to reveal the underlying reality beneath – in this case, the reality that, in spite of the growth of technological potentials, human labour remains central.

I tend – and this difference is somewhat slight, but has some important implications – instead to present Marx’s argument about the fetish as part of an attempt to pose the question of why human labour should remain important, given the hypertrophic development of new technologies and the increases in productivity that are structural tendencies within capitalist development. Rather than simply trying to reveal the centrality of labour, Marx is, I think, trying to foreground precisely how irrational it is that human labour should remain central – trying to nudge us in the direction of realising that there is no material reason for this centrality – that material production could quite comfortably shift to something ever-more technologically mediated, and ever-less dependent on the expenditure of human labour. So: yes, on one level he is drawing attention to the human labour that continues to be required – but with the strategic intent of suggesting that this requirement is essentially bizarre – that it is “social”, that it is arbitrary – and, therefore, that it can be transformed without a regression back to premodern levels of material wealth.

Apologies if this is very unclear – and I’ll stress that I take this to be more a presentational issue, than a substantive one. Writing on the run this morning, with no time to edit… Sorry!

Ticket Insurance

Via Marginal Revolution – perhaps Russ should use this concept in his Transport Planning course?

“My favourite ticketing system was in Mumbai, India,” Kim enthuses. “No one actually buys a ticket, but you can buy ‘ticket insurance’ from private entrepreneurs who work at the entrance of the station. The ‘ticket insurance’ is about half the price of a regular rail ticket. It gives you a guarantee that, in the extraordinary event that you are booked by a railways inspector for taking a free ride, your fine will be paid. A relative was once booked and the ticket insurer paid the fine exactly as promised.”

Here is the link, and thanks to Brendan Leary for the pointer.

At the very least, it’s a new way of thinking about Russ’ free rider problem.