Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

What Is Radical?

Hopefully Alexei won’t mind if I lift his latest comment into a more prominent space. The original context for the comment I’m reproducing below is in the still-percolating discussion of self-reflexivity: this comment was posted here, and was written as a direct response to this comment from Joe. I don’t want to deflect the original discussion, but my feeling was that Alexei’s response raises issues that are much more general (and – without speaking for Joe – might also be closer to the sorts of issues Joe has been trying to discuss all along). Alexei here defends a particular understanding of the value of theory and of the nature of radical transformation, to which I would like to draw attention:


while I too share your concern for the practicality of theory or philosophy, and I agree with you hat there is no such thing as ‘neutral theorizing.’ But I’m not at all sure I would agree with either of your metaphors. Like you, I don’t buy the idea that theory is mere observation. Nor, however do i think that there is an incisive — and decisive — moment, which, if missed, signals the failure to actualize whatever possibility it uncovered. Even if one picks the lock to an other’s home, bt takes nothing, and the other installs a new deadbolt, one still has the tools — and the skill — to pick it again, not to mention the knowledge of where the valuables are kept. As I see the matter, only fashion and reactionary politics can be “revolutionary”; Radical change, I think, is slow in coming.

So, if I might proffer my own analogy, I tend to think that philosophy/theory is much more like (but not identical to) Schrödinger’s box in that it is always already a world constituting and transforming intervention — although its effects are not as immediate or as direct as perhaps we would like them to be. It’s objects are social kinds, and hence produced by social practices, which can be changed by different modes of thinking. To pick up the example you used here, we need only think about the number of people who smoke today, compared to the number of folks who smoked in the first half of the 20th Century. And, while it may be true that I can come to recognize that I am addicted to cigarettes, and that smoking is killing me (however slowly), but nevertheless continue to smoke — and enjoy it — I may also affirm the various anti-smoking (by-)laws that prohibit smoking in public places, attempt to make sure minors cannot begin to smoke, etc. I can change the way we think about smoking. And, with a little luck smoking will be passé, a few generations down the road, . It may not help me, but it nevertheless changes the complexion of our social spheres.

Similarly, a theorist pursues a political interest by thinking and writing about it (I realize this probably sounds naive, but please bear with me). He disseminates his mode of thought by talking, by teaching, and by publishing, though not necessarily to bring about any immediate change, but rather to initiate its possibility (think here of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex). That is to say, a theorist creates politically important issues by making them public.

Now, perhaps I’m too patient, but I’m sceptical of every brand of millinerian theory, any Leninist avant-guardism (like Zizek’s), which promises that the revolution is (or could be) imminent, or that Utopia must come here and now. I’m sceptical of quick fixes, since they tend to come in moments of crisis, of implacable guilt, and they only lead to the continuation of crisis. At the moment, I actually think that we need more thinking, and less (mindless, instinctual, or responsive) action. We need to understand what it means to act politically, what a political action entails, whom it affects, and what it requires. And all this is this is a far cry from picking a lock, and stealing the establishment’s stereo for the good of the folks on the street.

I admit that, while I might tinker around the margins, I am sympathetic to the positions Alexei is sketching here.

We have no shortage of revolutions. Capitalism is a dynamic social form, which reproduces itself through dramatic cascades of structural transformation. The dynamic nature of the context means that it is extremely easy to confuse whatever transformation happens to follow the next crisis, with a movement toward liberation. The distinctive form of social reproduction – and the abstract character of what is being reproduced – makes it particularly important for transformative practice to gain a sense of what our context is, how the context operates, how the context is reproduced – and means that these questions lack simple and intuitive answers.

This doesn’t mean that no meaningful or important action can take place without some particular theoretical insight. It doesn’t mean that theory is a unique or exceptionalised reservoir of critical ideals. It certainly doesn’t mean that theorists have any “vanguardist” place in the leadership of social movements. It does mean that the dichotomy often drawn between “theory” and “practice” may be uniquely and specifically debilitating – may function as a form of “ideology” in the service of social reproduction – if we are oriented toward achieving emancipatory change in the present time.

Theory is a moment within collective practice, a moment which seeks to recognise and work through the implications of potentials that collective practice has already created (often unintentionally and unawares), a moment that seeks – along with other forms of practice – to deepen, extend and cultivate those potentials, to make them more available for targeted and deliberate political action in the service of emancipatory goals. The premise here is not that theoretical insight is somehow immediately and intrinsically transformative – that theory will snap its conceptual fingers, break the spell of identification, and instantaneously liberate us all. The premise is that, even in conditions where the spell is already broken and desires for liberation hang palpable in the air, we still need to work out how to extricate ourselves from the cycle that William Morris describes so well:

…men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name…

15 responses to “What Is Radical?

  1. Nate September 13, 2007 at 1:41 pm

    hey NP, this comment will either come out all a jumble or an IOU than a proper comment (no time lately, and far too much I want to read – on your site and in general) or both but I want to say before I go to bed, lest I forget:

    I agree entirely with the premise as you state it in your final line including the Morris quote. But … the line immediately before specifically refers to theoretical insight and theory, your refer elsewhere in your post to theorists and Alexei names folk like Zizek and De Beauvoir. This implies that that ‘theorist’ is not simply one who recognizes and thinks seriously about the need for extrication from the cycle, but rather thinks – and probably writes – in some relatively particular way. It’s not clear to me that theorists have a monopoly on this problem (that this way of thinking and this way of writing is the best way to approach this problem), which I know you didn’t say they did, but I think there’s a second question involved here – about how theorists and what they do relate to other approaches to the Pepperell-Morris problem, to other forms of recognizing and working through the implications of potentials that collected practice creates. (I’m tempted to try and sidestep and say that theory is broader than what theorists do – that is, 1 to give the name theory to anything that recognizes and works through in the way and 2 to assert that not only theorists in the style of those named here and similar ones do this sort of recognizing and working through – but that doesn’t really dissolve the problem, because there’s still the question of how the activity of folk like Zizek, De Beauvoir, etc relates to activities which are differently or less recognizable).

    hope you’re well.

    take care,

  2. N Pepperell September 13, 2007 at 3:41 pm

    Hey Nate – Just a short note to say, first, that I don’t want to collapse Alexei’s position into my own – he may not have wanted me to form a post around his comment, and may not agree with the way I’ve gone about doing this.

    That said – and apologies if it’s not expressed well in the post – I don’t think I disagree with you. I lump a lot of things under the concept of “theoretical insight” – so, for example, I wouldn’t myself have thought that the line prior to the Morris quote was a reference to academic theory or formal philosophy, but more a reference to social movements having a sufficient pragmatic sense of the environment in which they are “moving” that they can improve their chances of navigating that environment successfully to achieve whatever they’re trying to achieve.

    Some of the theoretical problems that I personally work on – the ones that have to do with the “can we really do [x] within the confines of a secular theory”, for example – likely have very little direct relevance to the Morris problem; other things I personally work on would be more useful – but for this very reason would blend in with a much broader and less formal range of “theorising” (much of which takes place in fairly informal spaces and expresses itself in many vernaculars) being done well beyond the academy.

    In talking about theory as a moment within collective practice, my intention, in a sense, is to blur boundaries, rather than erect them. I have a personally very ambivalent relationship to academic work (I left the academy in the US to do community-based work, and had never expected to wind up back in a university… Life takes one to strange places…), so my intention isn’t at all to flatten the notion of theory to some particular academic mode of thinking or writing, or to assert some kind of division of labour between “theorists” (as some distinct species of person) and anyone else.

    Instead, my point is more that I think movements are likely to run afoul of unintended consequences without some kind of robust theoretical orientation to the context in which they’re trying to operate. There is no reason, though, to assume that academic theory will have any kind of privileged position in generating theory with this kind of practical “robustness”.

    My target was more certain kinds of trope critiques of “theory” (the tendency to speak as though theory is intrinsically abstract, or as though abstractions are intrinsically impractical, or as though we should “just do it” because theory impedes practice, etc.) – these sorts of reflex dismissals (which, to be clear, I don’t at all hear in your response above) can, I think, be specifically disabling when the context itself is complex. Basically, I’m tired of good movements getting blindsided by historical dynamics that I think could have been foreseen and possibly overcome, and I don’t think the theory/practice divide helps us get past this situation – it’s that sort of sympathetic frustration that was driving the post…

    Good to see you back around, by the way 🙂

  3. Alexei September 14, 2007 at 4:27 pm

    Hi N — first off, let me say that I certainly don’t mind one of my little comments being lifted into a more predominant spot; I only wish I had proofread it more closely in order to catch a few of the terrible grammar issues, and typos. I was also a little worried that this particular comment was more a conversation killer than a productive contribution. And so I’ve been silent up until now.

    Past that, I think I tend to agree with what you’ve added to my initial comment, both in the post proper, and its subsequent clarification in your response to Nate.

    The only footnote I might add is the following: I would love to see the need for social movements disappear. And to this end I’m tempted to say, as Adorno might — or at least as JM Bernstein’s Adorno would — that the focus of our ‘practical’ engagements must begin with some kind of moral, first person reflection. Ultimately, I think something like Aristotle’s twin formulations of the actualization of the good is spot on: the goal of ethical life is the good; but the ethical life of we political animals can only be actualized within the state. Ethics requires politics, and politics requires ethics. And rathr than collapsing the one into the other, I think we should conceive of the two as replacing the theory/practice divide. I guess that makes me something of a reluctant Utopian thinker.

    As for the Theory question, I agree with you entirely. I didn’t mean to suggest that only individual theorists and individual theories can make a contribution. IN fact, I tend to think that collaborative thinking is far more productive in achieving any kind of social transformation or theoretical insight.

    Anyway, I need to run. Cheers.

  4. N Pepperell September 15, 2007 at 7:08 pm

    Hey Alexei – I just realised that a typo prevented the link to your site from working properly above – now fixed, with my apologies.

    And please don’t ever worry about “killing” conversations: we’d been talking for a long time, and these things tend to ebb after a while – if for no other reason than many of us eventually run into deadlines for other kinds of writing… ;-P And besides, you keep coming up with these pithy phrases for characterising positions – phrases that immediately colonise my writing and that I find very useful (hmm… how does one properly credit someone else for a viral expression?). So you should never hesitate to post – even if, these days, I’m in a period where my own response times may be a bit delayed.

    In terms of your addition above, on the wish for the need for social movements to disappear, on the orientation to moral standards/ideals, and on the need for first-person reflection: there’s so much to respond to here – and I may have to beg off doing this for a couple of days. My head needs to stay in a different space at the moment to finish something – hopefully it would be all right if I leave this hanging on a promissory note that I’ll try to get back more substantively, some time next week?

  5. Alexei September 16, 2007 at 12:04 am

    Ha! That explains why I’m not getting as many hits as I used to. But I’m not at all upset, N, you’ve sent me more than my fair share of traffic already.

    And I will gladly accept a rain cheque for a future conversation on the relationship between the political and the ethical. I should actually finish some stuff p — like that pesky Hegel paper, which was so rudely interrupted by moving to a different continent.

    Good writing, and I’ll check back in with you next week.

  6. Joseph Kugelmass September 16, 2007 at 8:07 am


    I’m thoroughly happy with your quantum version of the work of theory. I appreciate that it is a gentler, less apocalyptic figure, without foreclosure.

    I worry about what has become of theory in the last forty or so years; I look back on the 50s and 60s as a time when theory could operate with a good conscience. Even its bleakest utterances, such as the pessimistic texts by Adorno, arrived at a time when theory itself, pessimistic or not, did not know how it would affect the world it described.

    At this point, it seems to me that theory has to change its course; that much of what passes for politically-minded critical theory, especially in terms of the larger academic audiences and conversations (that go beyond the usually-interesting book by Derrida or whomever, the thing-in-itself) is both Hamletizing and helpless. It teaches students that the world is deeply in thrall to an oppressive and protean system, while simultaneously engrossing itself in techniques of reading (particularly painfully “close” readings) that have no hope of reaching the mainstream. The academy appears out-of-touch, and it is; it appears obscurantist, and it is.

    I apologize for rehashing here some of the commonest arguments “against theory” — I do so only to emphasize that when I chose the perhaps melodramatic metaphor of the theft, I did so to emphasize that the work of teaching, writing, and publishing is affected down to the level of the word by the fact that there are real antagonists out there. I don’t mean bad or evil people; I just mean people with vested financial interests who oppose the continuing study of Marx, oppose systemic change, and even oppose the study of the humanities for their own sake. In my view, the academy has adapted itself to this pressure by, through a series of very indirect “moves,” removing itself from the public sphere, and that the history of theory in this decade may well turn out to be a series of invisible concessions and conciliations.

    Therefore, a more dramatic version of what happens, and the responsibility of the contemporary theorist, may be the only way to make visible a battle that is going on regardless. Furthermore, while it may seem self-evident to fight the winnable fight — that is, to center direct political involvement on the preservation of academic freedom — I believe that doing so invites precisely those sorts of compromises that produce a politically meaningless freedom: freedom without funding, freedom without media coverage, and so forth.

    My experience with Aristotle has been an unusually conflicted one. He was not a significant part of my early education; I read the Ethics as a freshman in college, but the emphasis of my reading before and during college was on Plato. Plato was also the primary figure for other thinkers I read in volume, like Nietzsche, even where Nietzsche sided with Aristotle’s sensibleness. Aristotle, at least the Aristotle of the Poetics, is one of Aldous Huxley’s major antagonists in Brave New World, because of the conservative implications of audience catharsis.

    All in all, I have been surprised by the omnipresence of Aristotle as a model of good sense inside the academy, and around the blogosphere. While I certainly delight in Aristotle’s emphasis on education, self-formation, and moral reflection, I am bound by my feeling of urgency to Socrates’s more caustic irony, and his more disturbing presence in Athens, while the complacency of the “we” marks every page Aristotle writes on the good man: “So we are inclined to call the man who gives too much a spendthrift, and the man who gives too little a miser…”

  7. Joseph Kugelmass September 16, 2007 at 8:31 am

    Quick thought, on the run: Alexei, I think you’ve done an outstanding job also, in running with the example of cigarettes, of articulating what enlightened self-interest means as opposed to immediate interest, and how change can happen according to a gradual model. I’d merely point to the extraordinarily difficult work that led up to the kinds of possibilities — voting for anti-smoking regulations, for example — that was based as much on a series of time-sensitive strategic moves (memorably documented in The Insider) as on the ongoing scientific work of health research.

  8. Alexei September 16, 2007 at 11:08 am

    Joseph, your last comments reminded me of a talk Jean-Michel Rabaté gave a couple of years ago, at the conference, “Gambling Theory”. The basic upshot was that in the face of Theory’s failure, what we need is more theory, not less. The remark struck me as an apt one for a conference devoted to the notion-trope-metaphor of Gambling: the naive strategy of doubling one’s bet at the blackjack table every time one loses will guarantee that one will eventually break the Casino’s back, provided that one already has an indefinitely large amount of money in one’s pocket. But at that level of wealth, the stakes are actually beside the point; they are ultimately meaningless, since the only thing one is really playing for is the confirmation of one’s theory, or the renown of being “that guy who beat the system.” Of course, ‘that guy’ didn’t beat the system — he merely worked within it with the accumulated resources that syste made available. Of course, when faced with the staggering losses that theory demands, our tendency — or at least my tendency — is to suck up the loss and move on.

    So, to move on from this story, I take your point about the immediate ineffectuality of certain tendencies of theory. And I also recognize that, for those around who are coming from Literary studies and Philosophy, or perhaps even from Anthropology and Sociology, there’s always a guilty conscience attached to our precise social position: we can study only within a system, but the price of being able to study is effectively the renunciation of any direct, practical activity. We don’t build bridges, or even dig ditches. We don’t save lives, or even make them ‘better’ (or maybe that’s just me and my relationship to my students). And since there are only 24 hours in the day, and some of us are profoundly lazy, we simply can’t be as directly engaged as we think we ought to be. Being an academic these days amounts to a guilty conscience precisely because we are aware of our paradoxical situation. We rely upon a system we wish to change andsimultaneously insulate ourselves from this very system in order to pursue our academic — and generally impractical in the short term — studies. More than anything else, I think that the burgeoning guilt of being an academic (in the Humanities) accounts for the politicization of various fields in the humanities.

    Now, I’m certainly not claiming that this is a bad thing. I would, however, like to point out that no one, prior to, say, May ’68, would have ever thought that the humanities were somehow ineffectual. And it’s this shift that needs to be investigated. What changed between the (perceived?) imminent danger that intellectuals posed to totalitarian regimes, which required them to be deported, sent to the gulag, ‘disappeared’, or killed, and our current worries about the non-activist, non-interventionist nature of our profession? Why is it that mathematics students — who are just as nerdy as any English PhD, and make just as many pop culture references — don’t worry about the practical import of their work, as much as we do? And why don’t we see the neo-con attack against ‘leftist’ faculty and the attempt to curb our academic freedoms as a sign that we’re doing something right? Why hasn’t the argument been made against Horowitz et al. that his attempt to protect students from their professors’ biases (a) infantalizes them to the point where they are incapable of acting for, or defending themselves, and (b), to exaggerate for the sake of effect, differs from the Leninist-Stalinist academic purges only insofar as it has been unsuccessful?

    I take it that what we do, joseph, is train people to think, to be aware, and hopefully to be concerned. That is to say, we train them to have a conscience. WHy isn’t that a direct enough engagement? In sum, I don’t think we need more or less Theory than we had before. We’re not, for god’s sake, Gambling. We just have to come to terms with our guiltiness, and — in the hegelian movement par excellence forgive ourselves, suck up the immediate loss, and soldier on, while remembering what, exactly we have lost.

    As for your comments about Aristotle and Plato, let me say that, like you, mos of my formation was through Plato. And I think that Plato is far more a Political Philosopher than he is a Metaphysician — for reasons that are too complex to elaborate here, I think that everything he wrote amounts to a manifesto for virtuous living within the Polis. This said, however, Socrates presents us with a truly impossible position: his Irony demands that the only way to be right is to be wrong. And this is the lesson of the Apology. The only way he can successfully defend himself against the charge of sophism (corrupting the youth) and Impiety, is to fail to successfully defend himself; to be, as it were a lamb (Hence Kierkegaard’s claim to the effect that Socrates and Jesus are identicial through their differences). There’s not much that can be salvaged from such a position, save that it cleaves certain sophistical claims from truly wise ones, even though it can’t by any means connect wisdom with praxis.

    Aristotle, on the other hand, does present precisely sh a relationship, and for that reason (among many others) he tends to be a productive place to begin thinking through he relationship between ethics and politics, without falling into the Ideological trap that there is a realm of illusion and a realm of eternal truth, which the common man must be harmonized with through some ‘noble lie.’ Ah but now I’m really rambling, s perhaps I should go to bed. cheers

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  11. Joseph Kugelmass September 18, 2007 at 4:25 am


    When I mentioned the problems of disconnection (being “out-of-touch”) and obscurantism, I wasn’t suggesting any sort of doubling of theory. Rather, I would be perfectly happy if theory began to reform itself not by raising its stakes or swallowing larger mouthfuls of metaphysics, but simply by taking up a clearer, more inclusive style. That is the sort of change that would enable us to do the work of awakening conscience more effectively.

    While I’m all in favor of us forgiving ourselves for being scholars, rather than revolutionary leaders or agitators on a picket line, the question about our scholarship remains. By all means, let some Dickens scholar labor in the dusty corner of an archive, modifying the historical record of Little Dorrit, and although there are people starving in Africa, let her have a good conscience about doing it. That scholar can predict how a reasonable person will use his work: to understand and interpret Little Dorrit more sensibly and well.

    On the other hand, for a scholar who never, ever knows how his writing will be used, and who is writing specifically political theory, self-forgiveness may not be justified in the same way. How can one simultaneously expect to be read for one’s political insight, and exempted from the exigencies and responsibilities of the political sphere by one’s academic position?

    Broadly speaking, guilt and anxiety within the humanities, both about one’s debt to one’s fellow men, and about one’s own personal significance, did not begin in 1968. You can trace angry reactions to this same debate in Yeats’s poetry, in Joyce’s writing, in the agit-prop American writing of the 1930s, and in Thomas Mann’s novels and essays.

    There is a very good reason why training people to have a conscience is a vexed question: because it is possible to have a conscience just for show. That possibility does not invalidate every open-ended project of pedagogy, naturally, but if it makes pedagogy a self-searching, anxious discipline, perhaps that is to the benefit of the students.

    A man’s being put to death is not the measure of his thought, or of the possibility of his thought. The fact that Socrates did not accept exile or respond more humbly to his accusers may not be something you or I would do under the same circumstances, but Athenians put him to death, not irony or his faithfulness to the process of dialectics.

  12. rob September 18, 2007 at 10:44 am

    From Joseph’s comment at “Now-Times”:

    Simone de Beauvoir and Noam Chomsky are both thinkers who worked hard to reach a wide audience. At the very least, if one is going to speak about the role of the thinker in making an idea public, one has to think actively about the public. An idea isn’t really public merely because it is thought, or said, or written, or even published. In many ways, the combination of Jacques Derrida’s style, the nature of his own academic circle of intimates, and the practices of his wider readership have prevented him from being public and broadly effective in the ways that once might have seemed destined.

    Interesting, Joseph, that you raise the question of “the public” in relation to the combination of factors that prevent Derrida’s from being public. In a fabulous interview with D. published in an off-shoot of Le Monde (republished in The Other Heading), called “Call It a Day for Democracy”, Derrida interrogates (albeit somewhat obliquely) this idea of “public”, i.e. as “the public”, as “public space”, as “public opinion”, etc.

    Although he doesn’t go far down that path, his speculations appear to me to call for the questioning of the idea of “publicness” (or publicity?) underpinning what you’ve said above about “making an idea public” and about intellectuals reaching a “wider audience”. To put it in a crude formulation, are we certain that “the public” (hence “the public sphere”, “public opinion”, etc.) exists as such — or at any rate pre-exists the event in which (hence processes by which) some thing becomes public? Is it not more likely that we have always to deal with multiple publics, of varying types, proportions and scales (Derrida, e.g., speaks sometimes of the “quasi-private”) which are constituted on the basis of a broad, heterogeneous array of communicative techniques, etc.?

    Please excuse me for being presumptuous when I say that I suspect you would answer in the affirmative to that last question — which begs the question: are these different forms of quasi-public not more or less powerful in different contexts? Mightn’t the relative effectivity of such quasi-publics change according to factors that aren’t entirely predictable, such that the most obscure forms of thought, etc., might suddenly become widely deployed and debated (or, as D. puts it, “untimely developments that escape [a media institution’s] grid of intelligibility might one day take over without any resistance at all” (p.104)) Is it necessarily the case that any one particular form of publicness or publicity (I cite the words together so that we might not forget to remember the extent to which publics are constituted on the basis of commercial marketing techniques as well as modes of political-intellectual address, among other things) and one particular form of making-public — “I would be perfectly happy if theory began to reform itself not by raising its stakes or swallowing larger mouthfuls of metaphysics, but simply by taking up a clearer, more inclusive style” — must be privileged over all others in order to address the question of Theory’s apparent “disconnection”?

    I, too, am quite happy for academics to attempt to “do” theory in “a clearer, more inclusive style”. But I am at the same time very suspicious of attempts to turn that possibility into an imperative. So I wonder, if we are to think about theory as a practice that might sometimes have effects outside the context in which that practice seems most at home, is it necessary or even desirable to imagine the possibility of such effectivity in terms primarily of “making ideas public” or of reaching the “mainstream”? Is that the only way in which Theory might have effects (political or otherwise) outside the contexts of its academic application?

  13. N Pepperell September 18, 2007 at 1:25 pm

    Folks – I don’t have much time today, and won’t be able to do the full range of this discussion any justice, but thought I’d toss in something, at least as a placeholder.

    First I’ll indicate two things that I really want to get back to, but won’t touch on at all today, as they really need a more thorough treatment that I can provide – I’m listing them here for my own benefit, as I don’t want to lose track of them, even if I can’t address them now:

    (1) Alexei’s questions about the relationship of theory to social movements (and, perhaps more tacitly, the implied question about whether there might be downsides – ethical and practical – to orienting theoretical work around transformative movements); and

    (2) Joe’s questions (from the other thread) that relate to details of my own theoretical work – the relationship between the kind of theory that I’m doing, and the broader transdisciplinary interest in recursive systems and metaphors of recursion, and also the questions on how I might thematise issues related to uneven development.

    Both of these questions are at a tangent, I think, to where the discussion has gone – I list them here because I don’t want to lose track of them, and as a promissory note that I still intend to get back to them in some way once I can find the time.

    In terms of the current discussion, it seems to me there are four potentially separable issues running through the conversation (and apologies in advance that I don’t think I’ll quite “hit” what I’m trying to say here – writing on borrowed time – please don’t hesitate to correct what I’m trying to express here):

    a. the practical/political value of pedagogical practices – either within the institutional space of the academy, or more broadly;

    b. the practical/political value of particular forms of written expression – and whether popular accessibility is the most appropriate measure of practical/political value;

    c. the question of responsibility – expressed in Alexei’s interventions in relation to the issue of “guilt”, and in Joe’s interventions in relation to the issue of whether we are responsible for the consequences that flow from our academic interventions, particularly if we make political claims for those interventions; and

    d. what I take to be a sort of overarching question – particularly, if I’m not misunderstanding, motivating Alexei and rob – of what function is being served by the attempt to bind theoretical work back to the normative or moralising ideal that such work must be “practical”.

    I am personally particularly interested in this final issue. I am actually happy for elements of my work to be questioned on the grounds of whether they are practical in an everyday sense, because I pitch elements of my work that way. I am not so happy to see the norm of practicality used to shut down forms of work that cannot be seen to have an immediate “practical” impact – particularly where the concept of “practical” is taken to mean “popular” or “large-scale” or “everyday”. I am concerned that this kind of normative ideal risks participating in a broader populist/conservative assault on intellectual activity (an assault, I should note, that itself exists in a complex historical relationship to the critique of technocracy that unfolded in both left and right variants in the 1960s and 1970s, and that lent a voice to quite reasonable criticisms of the abuses of the postwar state – although with perhaps insufficient insight into what might step into the breach opened by such a critique).

    My great concern is that the appeal to “practicality” – particularly when the concept of the “practical” carries associations of “popular accessibility”, “immediate impact”, and “large-scale significance”, may literally function to keep certain pivotal questions from even being asked – let alone answered.

    My reaction here may be overdetermined because I’m situated currently in a planning area, but, to move the issue out of our current discussion about the humanities: I am intensely conscious of how important scientific work, for example, can come to be criticised as impractical or obscurantist because you need substantial background to understand it – it’s not only the humanities that suffer under the presumption that everything worth knowing must be amenable to immediate, intuitive, non-academic forms of analysis. I want to be careful here: a great many anti-democratic ills can hide beneath the cloak of academic expertise, and I understand the temptations and dangers of expertise for any field – my point is simply that there are also dangers in the rejection of the need for any kind of “technical” or “esoteric” knowledge: this seems to me to pre-dictate the sorts of questions that would be valuable to ask, to limit us to those questions amenable to simple investigations whose form and results translate easily into mass communication – and to bracket any sort of work whose object might be such that quite complex analysis and long preparatory training might be intrinsically required to bring the question into view.

    This isn’t even going into the fear of how the focus on “practicality” could close off exploratory forms of work that might bring unanticipated (and perhaps unanticipatible) possibilities into being.

    And the tacit question I hear (hopefully not too incorrectly) behind some of Alexei’s questions, which is whether the standard of “practicality” – imposed on so many different levels of social practice as a coercive ideals – might itself have a strong implicatedness in the reproduction of things as they currently are.

    Just to be clear: I am not at all suggesting that Joe is coming from a vision of “practicality” that would be implicated in the sorts of things that are worrying me here. I share Joe’s concern with some of the unsavoury dynamics that can enact themselves through particular instantiations of academic expertise. In the current (broader) political climate, though, I think there is likely to be more value in the (self-critical and nuanced) defence of more “intellectual” work, than can be found in joining the fray wanting to hold the academy “accountable” to a vision of “practicality”, when this term itself sits at the centre of a quite important contemporary political flashpoint over whether certain kinds of questions can be legitimately asked.

  14. Pingback: Charting the debate « Now-Times

  15. Alexei September 18, 2007 at 4:20 pm

    Just a quick reply to Joseph, since I really need to get going:

    First off, with respect to Socrates, his death is the exact measure of his thinking. You’ll remember, of course, that while his was found guilty of the charges by the narrowest of margins, he was condemned to death by an overwhelming majority. Folks were more willing to put him to death than they were to convict him in the first place. And the reason for this was Socrates’ response, when asked wht he thought a just punishment would be. Simply put, Socrates goaded his judges into executing him. He chose death. And hi did so in faithful obedience to both irony and dialectics.

    As for your comments concerning the dissatisfaction with the humanities prior to ’68, as expressed in various literary works, I can only agree with you. But, as Rob noted here, I did exaggerate a little. However, the examples you give are artistic, lietterary works, not specifically works of theory or of the humanities. Ultimately, though, I’m siply splitting hairs, and it doesn’t really matter to much. The point I was trying to make, in sum, was something like, prior to ’68 there seems to have been, among those inhabiting the Academe, a rather naive conception of the relationships between thinking and actin. That is, one gets the feeling, say from Sartre, that one can intervene easily by protesting this, voicing one’s objection against that, etc. With the failure of the academic world’s direct engagement, something rather different happened. We see a certain kind of withdrawal and questioning of the relevance of theory in general. It was this element I wanted to discuss (and which Adorno and Horkheimer got right decades earlier — and which led Adorno to locate, as critical moments of resstance, both literature and theory.). In short, I don’t disagree with what you’ve said. I just think that if we take your last comment as an objection, we wil start talking to each other at cross-purposes. To that extent, I take the fundamental contradiction (in the productive sense of the term), to be perfectly expressed in the following remark of yours,

    for a scholar who never, ever knows how his writing will be used, and who is writing specifically political theory, self-forgiveness may not be justified in the same way. How can one simultaneously expect to be read for one’s political insight, and exempted from the exigencies and responsibilities of the political sphere by one’s academic position?

    It’s precisely this problem that requires theorization. An it is precisely this issue that I wanted to frame as reorienting the political/ethical disvision, according to a horizonal conception of the good, which requires us to rethink the grounds of our guilt/responsibility in order to transform, or move past them.

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