Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Modernities Conference Talk

Too tired to post anything substantive tonight. I’ve posted the conference talk to the Modernities: Radicalism, Reflexivity, Realities conference below the fold, for the curious.

A few folks at the conference also asked where they could find the background material that lies behind the reading of Marx hinted at in the conference paper. In case anyone drops by, the back posts on the first chapter of Capital are listed immediately below (although I’m in the process of consolidating all this into something shorter and a bit more linear than in the think-out-loud material posted to the blog thus far):

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Human Labour in the Abstract

An Aside on the Category of Capital

Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

Subjects, Objects and Things In Between

Not Knowing Where to Have It

Cartesian Fragment

Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History

Random Metatheory

The Universal as Particular

Many thanks to folks who showed up to lend their support when I was presenting. For folks who weren’t there, but have been reading the blog regularly, I’m not certain that the materials below the fold will add much you haven’t seen. In some ways, I find conference talks more limited than the blog – the writing feels much less nuanced, even though it is probably a bit better organised than most of what I typically write here… Note that what I say at the event is never quite identical to what I write beforehand; in this case, though, it’s likely to be fairly close…

The Phenomenology of Capital

At the most general level, I am interested in the question of how to understand the emergence of critical sensibilities, and specifically with whether it is possible to understand such sensibilities via a social theory of a particular form – something I tend to call an “immanent, reflexive critique”. This terminology is often used in different – sometimes contradictory – ways in different literatures, making some preliminary definitions a useful starting point. First, to dispense with a couple of potential confusions that may lurk close to the surface: the vocabulary of “immanence” is often used in the context of a strong, general ontological claim – as an assertion of “materialism” in an ontological sense, or as a rejection of the notion of anything transcendent to nature, or as a claim that the subject/object dualism is illusory, or similar claims. These are all important and interesting issues. For purposes of this talk, however, I am speaking of something much more narrow, when I use the term “immanence”: when I ask whether an “immanent” critical theory is possible, I am asking whether it is possible to construct a critical theory that draws its ideals from within the society that it criticises.

“Reflexivity” is a similarly vexed term, often associated with questions related to the self-awareness of the individual subject, or the conditions of possibility for rationality. Again, I am using the term in a more narrow and technical sense: I am interested in the question of whether a theory, rather than an individual, can be “reflexive”. For my purposes, a theory is reflexive if, in the process of theorising the reproduction of the society that it criticises, it can plausibly demonstrate that social reproduction is internally contradictory, generating the possibility for some alternative organisation of social life, necessarily and in the very act of reproducing this one.

It is now quite common for critical theories to reject metaphysics, to insist on the impossibility of accessing some kind of “Archimedean point” outside of existing society, and to assert that all forms of perceiving and knowing are necessarily situated and located within some particular social context. This may suggest that most forms of critical theory are also immanent and reflexive in the sense in which I wish to use these terms. I want to suggest, however, than immanent and reflexive theories are far rarer than it may seem at first glance. There is a difference between asserting that all positions are immanent, and showing how particular positions – whether affirming or critical of a particular context – are immanently constituted by specific forms of collective practice. While I can be no more than gestural here, I would suggest that, on close examination, many common forms of critical theory take a different form than what I’m trying to “pick out” with the concept of immanent reflexive critique. Running through a few broad brush strokes categories for types of critique may help clarify what, by contrast, I am trying to do:

First, and most obviously, there are types of theory engaged in what Habermas has called “cryptonormativity” – where the theorist adopts an explicit standpoint that the “situatedness” of ideas undermines the ability to make normative judgments, but continues to engage in critical practices that the theorist’s explicit theoretical commitments cannot “ground”. An immanent and reflexive critique does not see relativism as an implication of establishing the “situatedness” of critical ideals, but instead seeks to understand better how such ideals arise in collective practice, specifically in the form of unrealised potentials for emancipatory change.

Second, there are types of theory that collapse social analysis to the notion of a functional analysis. The key issue here, from my perspective, is that a functional analysis generally does not concern itself with the question of how something is generated in collective practice, or with why something takes some particular qualitative form, but instead looks solely to the role played or function filled by its object of analysis.

Third – and very common – are theories that criticise a process of social reproduction against standards provided by something that tacitly or explicitly stands outside that process of reproduction. This understanding of critique can be found in a wide range of theories – for example: in the “tragic stoic” pessimism of Weber or Freud; in theories attempting to ground a potential for resistance in “bodily experience”, in “remainders” intrinsically generated in the process of socialisation or similar concepts; in theories seeking out some kind of “margin” because they tacitly or explicitly believe that critical sensibilities can’t be generated in the “core”; in theories that seek out residues of pre- or anti-modern social forms, etc. These diverse types of theory share a common notion that critical ideals must somehow arise outside the form of socialisation being criticised.

Fourth, theories that identify some kind of inherent undecidability or indeterminacy that prevents any process of social reproduction from becoming “totalising”. In some senses, this is a special variant on the notion that critique must arise from “the outside”. The key issue here is that such theories tend to ground a very abstract potential for unpredictable (and therefore untheorisable) forms of change to happen, which disrupt the steady process of social reproduction. These types of theory tend either to treat the form of change as unpredictable, or else to hypostatise this form by failing to theorise the ways in which its qualitative form has been shaped by a specific process of social reproduction;

Fifth, theories that change the terms of the problem, embedding the process of social reproduction inside something else (typically, a broader natural or historical process). Such theories can still assert that an “immanent” contradiction exists, and can still position themselves as “reflexive” – they just become immanent and reflexive with reference to something broader than a process of social reproduction (the obvious contemporary example of this approach would be Habermas).

I want to emphasise very strongly here that I am not listing these various approaches to critical theory in order to reject them, in favour of an alternative concept of critique that I think must be embraced to the exclusion of others. My position is that multiple forms of critique may simultaneously be valid, with reference to their respective critical targets, and that the validity or appropriateness of any particular vision of critique is something that needs to be analysed in a nuanced and non-dogmatic way.

My intention in providing this kind of rough and ready schematisation is instead to suggest that I am trying to hit a fairly narrow target with the notion of an “immanent, reflexive critical theory”. The form of theory that interests me involves an attempt, not simply to assert that all forms of criticism are inevitably located, but to provide an account of the genesis within collective practice of critical sensibilities. It involves, moreover, an attempt to account for the genesis of critical sensibilities through its analysis of the reproduction of some specific society, rather than societies in general, and it attempts to understand that specific process of social reproduction as contradictory in the sense that it simultaneously reproduces society in its existing form, and generates potentials, both material and ideal, that point beyond this process of reproduction in some specific way.

Within this framework, critical sensibilities are thus understood to arise in the core, rather than the margins, as an aspect of social reproduction, rather than as something that sits outside the reproductive process, as a determinate expression of the practical potential to transform our collective lives in some specific way, rather than as a generic and abstract potential for change. This is the target I am trying to hit, when I ask whether it is possible to constitute an adequate immanent, reflexive critical theory today.

I need to say now that I think we must approach this as an open question. I see no point in asserting dogmatically that this kind of theory should even be possible – no reason to assume that a process of social reproduction should generate systematic and therefore theorisable potentials for an alternative organisation of collective life. The issue at hand is therefore: is there some way in which our specific form of collective life might do such a strange thing now? If so, then something like an immanent, reflexive critical theory is possible. If so, then the failure to engage in such a theory will leave us in the dark about key aspects of our collective lives.

There is a great deal more I could say here – in particular, on the question of why certain historical traumas – most notably the rise of totalitarianism and state-centred forms of capitalism in the early 20th century, and then the constellation of crises emanating from the structural transformations beginning in the late 1960s, together with the iconic events of May ’68 – have worked, in different ways, to push critical theory away from this particular vision of immanent, reflexive critique.

The brief and inadequate version of this story is that theorists with critical impulses became averse – for good reason – to the notion that critical ideals should be grounded in “what is” (and with the sometimes associated belief that critique should align itself with the inexorable movement of the tide of history). Critical ideals came to be reformulated in counterfactual terms – critique was reconceptualised as a ceaselessly restless enterprise that could never fully settle in any particular existent form, but would instead remain in a state of perpetual non-identity.

This shift was, however, effected in a form that tended to sever the link between critique and any kind of immanent social contradiction – posing the challenge of how theorists could understand the relationship between their own critical ideals, and practical potentials for emancipatory change. If the current complaints about the failure of revolutionary imagination are any guide, we still find ourselves in the shadow of this historical shift.

When I pose the question of whether it is possible to construct an adequate immanent, reflexive critical theory, I therefore do so with this history in full view. Into the notion of “adequacy”, I smuggle the question of whether we can conceptualise a process of social reproduction that somehow points beyond itself – without, however, this meaning that critique is being conceptualised as somehow aligning clearly and unambiguously with some existent social institution. Is there some sense in which we can speak about the generation of practical potentials for transformation, without conceptualising transformation in terms of the generalisation or universalisation of something that currently exists, in its present form?

As Marx might say – “These are the conditions of the problem: hic Rhodus, hic salta!” This is the ground where we must make our leap.

In making this leap, I have to confess, I sought to avoid working closely with Marx. Not because I have a personal objection to Marx’s work, but because I was, and remain, quite nervous about the possibility of writing on Marx, without the reception of my work falling into one of the deep and well-established grooves into which historical gravity tends to draw interpretations of Marx.

In spite of this continuing hesitation, I have found it impossible to avoid confronting what Marx was attempting, particularly in Capital – a work which I read as an immanent, reflexive critique in all the senses I have discussed above. What I want to try to do here is simply open the question of how we might read this text, to draw from it – not a completed theoretical system that can be applied directly to contemporary concerns – but a supple model of theoretical methodology that poses some useful challenges for contemporary critique.

I want to begin by saying that a great deal of my reading of Capital hinges on the notion that Marx is very often not voicing his own position explicitly in this text. Instead, I want to suggest, a key part of the textual strategy of Capital involves the unfolding and exploration of various, often mutually contradictory, perspectives that are understood to be immanently “given” in the process of the reproduction of capital.

If this text is read “straight”, as though each moment unfolds a position that Marx himself endorses, the text becomes inexcusably and implausibly contradictory. The various moves Marx makes become more comprehensible, however, if the work is read as a kind of phenomenology – as a movement across multiple, immanently available forms of subjectivity, each related to some specific dimension of collective practice.

Because the theory is immanent and reflexive, Marx must somehow demonstrate how his own critical ideals could plausibly arise within the process of social reproduction he is criticising – such that he can criticise this process of social reproduction from within, rather than adopting a standpoint outside.

Marx folds this critical concept into the heart of his textual strategy, producing what I tend to call an “immanently voiced” text. Borrowing here from Hegel, Marx begins with a particular “given” – a specific perspective that arises immanently within a particular moment of the reproduction of capital – and then demonstrates how this moment betrays the existence of other moments – some of which ultimately react back on one another, collectively revealing the limitations and shortcomings of other perspectives. The analysis aims never to require a leap “outside”: no criticisms are to be made from some objective “Archimedean point” that floats above the process of the reproduction of capital.

In this brief presentation, I can’t do more than make a quick gesture at illustrating how this strategy unfolds within the text. The opening passage of Capital reads:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”, its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.

The commodity here appears to be a basic, apparently irreducible, “primitive” unit – what we might call, following Durkheim, an “elementary form”. The properties of the commodity – initially determined in terms of use value and exchange value – are presented in the text as though they inhere in the commodity as a discrete material object, providing the conditions of possibility for particular forms of social practice. The logic of the text at this point suggests that, were commodities as material objects to lack these internal traits, certain social practices would be impossible.

Looking ahead in the text, however, we know that Marx does not hold this view. In the concluding section on commodity fetishism, towards which this chapter builds, Marx launches into a typically sardonic diatribe against theorists who treat commodities as material objects that possess mysterious, supersensible properties, on which social practices rely.

In between the opening passage and this polemic on commodity fetishism, Marx gradually unfolds the ways in which several immanently “given” perspectives point to the existence of other perspectives, in a process that gradually accumulates critical resources without the need to breach the immanent frame of the analysis.

To trace the movement of the opening passage very quickly: Marx begins in a “Cartesian” thought-space, in which the commodity appears to be “an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another”. This object has a dual character. One dimension of that duality – use value – is presented as deriving from the commodity’s material properties, the discovery of which is “the work of history”. The use values created from these material properties are framed as “the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth”. The other dimension of the commodity – exchange value – is then presented as the historically specific social form of wealth in capitalist society – and therefore as more contingent than the material substance. Exchange value is presented as one of many potential social forms to have been wrapped around this same material substance – such that the relationship between form and substance is, from the point of view of this perspective, contingent and arbitrary.

In these first few paragraphs, Marx quickly sets up a dichotomy between a transhistorical and universalistic “material” world, and an arbitrary and contingent “social” world – suggesting, perhaps, that insights into the material world might provide a privileged position from which to criticise arbitrary social determinations about wealth. Yet this dichotomy isn’t, in any straightforward sense, part of an argument Marx is trying to make, but is rather something more like an illustration of a perspective whose practical origins Marx is trying to understand. He doesn’t say this explicitly in the text, because this would break the immanent voicing and step outside the forms of perception available to this particular perspective. In Marx’s view, this would render the form of text incompatible with its content – a stylistic principle that expresses the conceptual strategy of his immanent critique (and that, interestingly, deviates from the arbitrary connection posited between form and content in the opening paragraphs of Capital).

The section on the fetish, of course, lets us know where Marx is headed. He does, though, also offer a number of textual clues earlier. The first is actually in the first sentence, where he makes the strange gesture of quoting himself midway through. Marx here subtly reminds the reader of the possible non-identity between what he elsewhere calls “the mode of presentation” and the “mode of investigation” – pointing to the fact that Capital is itself the end product of a prior process of research, which did not unfold along the same lines as the deductive analysis presented in the text. He also tacitly sets up this first sentence so that the way in which capitalist society “presents itself” – the form of perception that is “given” within the process of the reproduction of capital – references Marx: his own critical standpoint, the text suggests, is already implied, even in the very earliest categories introduced in Capital. He is flagging his intention to unfold the possibility for his own perspective, immanently, through an analysis of perspectives that initially appear quite different from his own: whether apparent yet or not, there is some sense in which the possibility for Marx’s critique is already immanently implied.

There are many other such hints, but I’ll break off from the detailed textual discussion – I’ve written more on this in other contexts, if people want to follow up. In terms of the structure of the rest of the chapter: very roughly, Marx goes on to unfold a critique of this “Cartesian” perspective, by first moving through a sort of Kantian transcendental argument, en route to a “Hegelian” dialectical mode of theory. He unfolds the possibility for each new perspective immanently from the perspective just prior – he also, particularly by the third section, begins explicitly to mobilise the insights gleaned from his analysis of specific perspectives, in the critique of perspectives earlier in the text.

In this context, critique consists in the exploration of the internal tensions within the perspectives he analyses – thus illustrating the ways in which no perspective can be interpreted as neatly separated from the broader context of the reproduction of capital. Critique also consists in “grounding” each perspective in an analysis of how such a perspective is not a “mere” error or illusion, but instead a kind of plausible interpretation of the experience of some particular moment of capitalist society, if that moment is not adequately recognised as partial. Marx therefore runs quickly through perspectives that each, in their own way, hypostatise and falsely extrapolate from experiences that do, however, genuinely express some particular dimension of the reproduction of capital.

There is some fantastic metacommentary in this chapter about the tendency to project moments of capitalism back into prehistory, and about many other themes that are often implicated in how different traditions read Marx (that is to say: many traditions read Marx to be endorsing the sorts of positions I am suggesting he is trying to criticise in this first chapter). I unfortunately don’t have time to do justice to such issues in this talk. I do, though, just want to flag in passing that I am not solely trying to defend Marx against interpreters who understand him to be applying some transhistorical version of materialism: a close unpacking of this chapter challenges a number of common interpretations of how Marx understands the standpoint of his own critical theory.

Just very briefly before I conclude, I want to suggest something of what I take to be one of the overarching frameworks Marx is unfolding, across the whole of Capital. Again, I take this text to be problematising far more than it is generally taken to problematise, and also to be positing far more multiplicity within capitalism than it is often perceived to posit. Specifically, I take Marx to be unfolding an argument that attempts to account for a number of key conceptual dichotomies that he regards as symptomatic within capitalist society, by demonstrating how such dichotomies are not merely conceptual (and therefore cannot be resolved simply by the force of the better argument), but are actively – if nonconsciously – enacted in collective practice. He offers, in other words, a social analysis of real dichotomies that can only be adequately overcome in practice – he also offers an analysis of why the practical basis of such symptomatic dichotomies might be exceptionally easy to overlook.

The pivotal dichotomy, from the perspective of my current work, involves the mutual differentiation of two different dimensions of collective practice – and here I’ll apologise, and I am moving very, very quickly. Speaking very loosely and gesturally here: one dimension involves the imposition of genuinely impersonal forms of social compulsion that are unintentionally enacted by social actors engaged in practices aimed at different ends, and therefore tends to “prime” social actors to perceive asocial environments as possessing a set of qualitative traits that they are enacting in this impersonal dimension of social practice; while a second dimension involves the sorts of social practices that seem “intuitively social” to us – intersubjective practices, for example – to which we become especially sensitised because of how – again, in collective practice – such “intuitively social” practices come to be “relativised”, by being enacted as contingent in various specific ways.

I take Marx’s theory, in other words, to be posing the question of why something like “materialism” becomes intuitive to us – why we become primed to conceptualise nature as a disenchanted realm, intrinsically devoid of anthropological determinations (suggesting, in other words, that the conceptualisation of nature as intrinsically devoid of anthropological determinations is a distinctive form of anthropological determination generated immanently within a certain social context). And also, simultaneously, to be posing the question of why we become primed to see certain kinds of collective practices as social – why we become so sensitive to history, to contingency, to the potential contestability of certain levels of social practice. I take him to be setting up for a critical position that “materialism” – whether or not it might also provide useful conceptual categories for manipulating the natural world to certain ends – somehow expresses practical dispositions that are enacted within a dimension of social practice whose qualitative characteristics make it very difficult for us to recognise as social. At the same time, I take him to be setting up for a critical position that “historicising” forms of perception – whether or not they might also provide useful conceptual categories for understanding the contingency of certain aspects of human practice – tend to distract us endlessly into contestations over dimensions of our collective life that we intuitively grasp as social – thereby tending to deflect us from other forms of contestation that might be required, if capitalism is to be overcome.

27 responses to “Modernities Conference Talk

  1. Andrew Montin November 27, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    Hi Nicole,

    Very interesting paper. Just a quick point. You define “internal contradiction” as “generating the possibility for some alternative organisation of social life, necessarily and in the very act of reproducing this one.” But I wonder whether this is really a contradiction in Marx’s sense or any other sense. To be contradictory, I would have thought, a process must do more than just contain the seeds of an alternative – it must above all actively undermine the conditions of its own existence.

    Habermas formulates this contradiction in terms of the “unintentional” forms of social compulsion (system integration) interfering with or colonizing the “intuitively social” intersubjective practices (social integration) which make society possible. I understand that you’re skeptical of this dichotomy, but it’s unclear to me how else you intend to characterize the contradiction inherent in capitalism.

  2. N Pepperell November 27, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    Hey Andrew – good to see you commenting. Just a quick response, as I’m operating off battery power at the moment 🙂

    I’m deliberately spinning the term “contradiction” into this meaning (many of the terms I use are appropriations that push on the more traditional meanings – I hang onto the established vocabulary to indicate that I’m trying to intervene into the same space, by my interventions often don’t quite the traditional form).

    I actually do think I’m talking about a contradiction in Marx’s sense – but that’s predicated on a very different notion of what Marx was trying to do. The space I’m trying to hit with this use of contradiction, though, does have an established Marxist lineage (and, for that matter, Hegelian lineage): that the contours of the new society are birthed within the old – the old holds back the emergence of the new to which it has given rise. I think you’re right that “contradiction” isn’t a good term to use for this concept – if I were starting from scratch, it isn’t the term I would chose – but the concept of contradiction as I use it above does fit roughly in this tradition.

    In certain forms of Marxism, the notion was then that (1) the new form of social life is associated strongly with certain specific existent institution, and (2) a linear historical dynamic would drive inevitably toward the realisation of this new social form. I would draw a line between the conception of “contradiction” I’m trying to develop, and either of these conceptions. I’m trying, instead, to point more toward the notion of a nonlinear historical dynamic that constitutes, and preserves, certain potentials that are not fully expressed in any existent institution, and that will not automatically realise themselves in any quasi-automatic way, but that do provide a practical basis for the emergence of particular kinds of political ideals, understandings of selfhood, forms of collective mobilisation, etc.

    I have a number of problems with Habermas’ position, one of which you’ve hit on above. There is a great deal I could say here but, picking up on what you’ve just written: Habermas’ vision of critique is unwilling to allow his own critical ideals or normative standpoint to be just as “constructed” as the society he criticises. So he claims that his critical ideals are something like a “negation” – something that remains, when all artificial accretions have been stripped back, and we stand in the clear light provided by “socialisation as such”. This is a very common approach to trying to ground critical ideals – and the critique of this kind of position would have to progress, essentially, by showing that what Habermas takes to be “socialisation as such” (things that, as you phrased it above, “make society possible”), are instead generated actively in some determinate way in a particular historical configuration. I don’t have the space to make this kind of critique here 🙂 But this is the sort of critical apparatus I am trying to set up.

    From my point of view, Habermas’ position is actually rather similar to that of political economy – where Marx jokes that political economists thought there were two types of societies – artificial, and natural. Habermas has a more sophisticated means of arriving at his vision of “nature” – or, phrased another way, his vision of what is intrinsic and most basic in rendering society as such possible. I think it’s possible to do more than this: to take more seriously the notion that we are embedded in our moment, and that our critical ideals – those things that, as Benjamin says, “arouse envy in us” – reflect potentials that we have actively constituted, rather than our latterday discovery of principles of socialisation that have latently been available to humanity all along, but have been encrusted over with various enchantments that have kept them invisible to us until recent history.

    But you’re absolutely right that I don’t really mean “contradiction” in its everyday sense: I mean that there are multiple potentials available to us that are systematically generated, and can therefore be theorised in their multiplicity. And I mean that some of these potentials tend not to be recognised as potentials – either because we tend not to realise they’re available, or because we misrecognise them as intrinsic abstractions that have no determinate practical origin of any kind.

    Similar sorts of comments can be made about other terms I use in a technical sense. I go back and forth on this – do I make up some new vocabulary, etc. On balance, I still find it more useful to hang onto terms that have at least some relevant historical associations – even if this then means that I’m constantly playing off against certain historical “grooves” in order to clarify my point.

    Apologies for replying in such a rush (and future comments shouldn’t get held in moderation, but should go straight through).

  3. Andrew Montin November 28, 2007 at 5:00 pm

    Thanks Nicole. So from what I understand, you think the normative foundation for a Critical Theory lies not in existing institutions or a historical dynamic, but in those potentialities for an alternative society not yet recognised as such – i.e. in that which is “very difficult for us to recognise as social”. And in the very process of recognising them, we reconstruct them as a normative basis for critique. Am I on the right wavelength?

    I’m not sure I completely agree with you when you write: “Habermas’ vision of critique is unwilling to allow his own critical ideals or normative standpoint to be just as “constructed” as the society he criticises.” This is something I’m working on at the moment, and it seems to me that there is a creative dimension to communicative action which in a very real sense “constructs” the normative standpoint. Also the rationality of communication itself is the outcome of a social-historical process – the “rationalisation” of the lifeworld. But certainly Habermas can give the opposite impression.

  4. Nate November 29, 2007 at 5:51 am

    hi NP,
    I read the printout of this on the bus ride home today. I like it a lot. I’m going to respond soon.
    take care,

  5. Pingback: What in the hell … :: … is immanent, reflexive critique? :: November :: 2007

  6. N Pepperell November 29, 2007 at 8:42 am

    Hey Nate – I do that sort of thing to – print out posts and such to read on the tram home. Lately, I’ve been having to drive in more than usual, and the thing I hate most about driving is the lost time to read on the trip.

    Andrew – Sorry to leave you hanging for so long – I’m dead busy at the moment, and so I’m not being very good with responses. And I’ll also have to apologise for being much more superficial than I would like to be – these are fantastic questions, and I’d like to have more time to spend on trying to work out how I would answer – so, if this ends up not making much sense or being too truncated, just keep prodding.

    I’ll start with the question on Habermas: I was being too rushed in my last response to be clear about the level of abstraction at which I’m critical of Habermas’ work. You’re right that he seems to argue that social actors “create” their own norms, and you’re right that power of communicative action is “released” historically. But 🙂

    First on the historical issue – and this is actually a major part of why I think Habermas is actually similar to the political economists (and piles of other forms of modern thought that rely on this argumentative structure – I just mention the political economists because I’ve been writing on that issue recently here): the point I think Marx makes about political economy is that it is actually, seen from one perspective, a historicising form of thought – it’s extremely aware that it’s discussing forms of social life (or economic life) that haven’t existed historically, it’s aware that different forms of economy have unfolded under different conditions over time, and it’s even aware that some of the aspects of social life/economic life that it wants to bring into being have never existed – that it is trying to effect change in the present, to bring a particular kind of economy more completely into being. All of this is very similar to the way in which Habermas describes the potential for bringing into existence a form of social life more adequate to the principles of political economy [Ed. – Bah! Meant to say “communciative action”]. Superficially, this sounds like a “historical” approach.

    My argument would be, though, that – to borrow a term from the “strong programme” in the sociology of scientific knowledge – this form of historicising thought is actually tacitly “asymmetrical” – that it doesn’t treat itself as “historical” in the same way that it treats past societies (or even the aspects of current societies of which it is critical) as “historical”. When speaking of everything except its own normative standpoint (the vision of society it wants to bring into being), a more thoroughgoing historicisation is involved – one that treats its object of analysis as thoroughly contingent. When speaking of the kind of society it wants to bring into being, however, it tacitly positions that form of society as less contingent – by, for example, relying on the notion that the form of society for which is advocating is the only form that is adequate to some sort of functional requirement for Socialisation as Such: tacitly, other forms of sociality are positioned as deviated from this norm; and, tacitly, this norm is positioned as less contingent than the deviations. So we are not constituting our normative ideals in such an approach – we are discovering or uncovering ideals that have actually always been there, deeply linked with some transhistorical object that, however, we have only recently come to perceive clearly.

    I would argue that Habermas’ notion of functions required for social reproduction is simply an updated version of the political economists’ notion that there are “natural” social institutions (the ones that express “natural” laws, and “natural” rights), and “artificial” social institutions (the ones that impede the operation of those natural laws and natural rights) – the shape of Habermas’ argument is essentially identical to this – it’s just that, like most theorists today, he would find it a bit embarrassing to invoke a notion of a natural society, so he’s chosen some more contemporary terms. This shouldn’t prevent us from seeing that the structure of the argument is the same.

    Which brings us to the issue of whether Habermas sees communicative norms as constituted by social actors. At a concrete level of everyday application, yes, he does. But he doesn’t allow the limit characteristics of communicative action per se to be constituted – to be contingent (or, I would say: to be objective, but only for us, because we’ve enacted these norms and have been primed to appreciate them by our own accidental history). Instead, the norms he considers most important – the norms, for example, that he wields to make normative judgements about other forms of theory or about contemporary social movements, etc. – are derived from what he takes to be an intrinsic “function” of language (this is part of what Brandom pings him on, and I think Brandom is right to do it). These norms, while we may only become aware of them historically, are not actually constituted by social practice in anywhere near the same way as, say, the norms Habermas discusses somewhere in Theory of Communicative Practice, where he has the apprentice being sent off to grab a beer by his workmates – Habermas is happy to let that sort of norm reside fully in social practice, but he is not happy to let, say, the specific qualitative attributes he claims to derive from practical stances differentiating internal, objective, and intersubjective worlds to be constituted in social practice: those sorts of stances are instead nesting much deeper ontological claims, which Habermas thinks that he needs, in order to ground the possibility for universal norms.

    I’m more Rortian: I think it’s possible to explain the same things Habermas explains, with reference to much more mundane forms of everyday practice that are not at all intrinsic to the reproduction of Socialisation as Such – but are simply related to the reproduction of our particular society. From my point of view, though, Rorty (there’s a very rough paper on the blog somewhere about this) is both too “intellectualist” in how he understands norms (I’m no Rorty expert by a long stretch, but his work reads to me as though he sees norms as sedimented in culture, rather than – as I tend to see them – “primed” in contemporary practice, which then borrows from and, if needed, also improvises around, whatever “cultural” resources are also available to practice). One consequence of Rorty’s approach is that “universals” seem to be unavailable, because his concept of culture divides the contemporary world into segments. My argument would be that there are practices that do at this point cross the globe – and that those practices prime forms of being in the world, which then make something more “Habermasian” possible – but without Habermas’ problematic attempt to ground these universals in something more dramatic than “what we happen to do around here, around now”.

    I realise what I’ve written is deeply truncated and I apologise if it’s very unclear – writing on the run. But I did want to get quickly to the question you asked first above, of whether I see my own normative potential as residing in those aspects of social practice that we struggle to recognise as social. I’m still wrestling with the issue of how I understand my own normative standpoint – as in, I think I’ve worked out methodological and metatheoretically what makes a normative standpoint possible within the kind of critique I’m trying to do, but I’m still more waffly on what sorts of norms I’m advocating – partially because I think I see normative judgements as involving a movement across a wide range of perspectives available to us within our current social context, such that we play these perspectives off against one another, to arrive at a better sense of what the potentials of the current moment actually are – so I see critique, again in Benjaminian lines, as trying to create a situation in which history becomes “citable in all its moments”.

    So, on the one hand, yes: I do think there’s an abridgement going on, because certain consequences of social practice are difficult to recognise as consequences of social practice, and I do think (1) that a number of contemporary forms of critique are actually expressing the potentials of this apparently asocial dimension of social practice, taking these potentials as their own normative standpoint, but understanding those potentials to reside either in nature or in some sort of functional requirement; and (2) that an abridgement is going on, that certain critical potentials can’t be adequately released, unless we get better at recognising how such ideals are generated unintentionally in collective practice.

    However, I don’t think my own normative position actually lines up in any direct way solely with the values associated with this “asocial” dimension of sociality. Instead, I suspect my own normative position lines up with the ability to move more freely between the ideals generated in that dimension of social practice, and other ideals generated in other dimensions – in the process of playing these things off against one another, to get a stronger feel for what we have accidentally shown ourselves is historically possible for human societies, for our interactions with nature and one another, and for the cultivation of ourselves.

    I realise that, stated this way, it’s a bit vague – and here, I’ll have to admit that this isn’t a product of writing quickly: I simply haven’t developed this fully. In part, I think I’m unsure whether it’s the task of a theorist or theory to develop a vision of the type of society we should achieve – I see this as a collective project. What the theory can do is help us become a bit more aware, though, of some of the resources we might have at our disposal for this process of collective creation, which might be a bit difficult to see – and it can criticise conceptions that significantly abridge existing potentials.

    At least, that’s where I am with this at the moment…


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  9. Andrew Montin November 29, 2007 at 5:25 pm

    I no longer know where to reply! I’ll do so here as I haven’t yet read the most recent post. I’ll have to do so later; apologies if it makes some of what I write below redundant…

    Thanks Nicole – I really appreciate your responses. Please don’t let me distract you from more important things though.

    First, on the issue of a normative standpoint for Critical Theory (which Nate and Rob also discuss), I think this is why it’s important to reconsider the notion of contradiction. You’ve formulated the idea of contradiction in terms of making possible alternative futures while at the same time preventing their realization. Let’s take capitalism as a concrete example. It generates a tremendous amount of wealth which could be used to liberate much of humanity from suffering in the forms of e.g. poverty and meaningless labour. Capitalism also perpetuates these very same types of suffering. So a future without poverty, say, is made possible by capitalism but prevented from being realized. I take it this is what you mean by contradiction. But is it immanent to capitalism? What would be the normative standpoint within social reality which makes the alleviation of poverty a priority over the other ends of wealth creation? My understanding of Critical Theory is that it attempts an immanent social critique through the analysis of things like society, capital, labour, moral suffering, recognition, etc. It does not first make a normative determination about what social possibilities should be realized (even if it is prompted by such moral intuitions), but rather makes a case for the necessity of certain conditions sustaining a particular social existence which are at the same time being undermined or distorted. The emancipatory potential of society lies in those futures which would be brought into existence if the existing conditions of sociality are given their due. (So I disagree with Rob that the normative evaluation of alternatives can only take place in the future; rather it is the future itself that is normatively evaluated from the standpoint of the present conditions of social existence.)

    Second with regard to Habermas: the three formal world-concepts which form the basis of raising validity claims in communication are the outcome of a social-historical process. In times gone by, according to Habermas, the communication which reproduced society was not fully “rational” in this sense because myth and ritual prevented the separating out of the objective, subjective and social worlds. I guess your point would be that Habermas sees communicative rationality as a “natural” or “inevitable” outcome. But Habermas could argue that it is simply constitutive of our ability (here and now) to make any rational claims, inc. normative ones. I take it that when you refer to Brandom picking him up on the intrinsic function of language, you mean when Brandom questions whether there is a point (like the coordination of action) to language at all. But I would argue that Habermas doesn’t claim communicative action is a means to an end; on the contrary, he would agree with Brandom that “discursive practice is a mighty engine for the envisaging and engendering of new ends – thereby transforming the very concept of an end or goal, giving it for the first time its proper, practical-rational, sense.” Habermas differs with Brandom on the extent to which this practice is bound up with the coordination of action as agreement. I’m sure I’ll have occasion to return to this.

  10. N Pepperell November 29, 2007 at 7:27 pm

    Andrew – Super-super quickly, as you and Nate have been much too effective at distracting me today 🙂

    I do understand that second and third generation Critical Theory understands the concept of “contradiction” in the way you describe – there’s a reason I don’t capitalise the term “Critical Theory” when I use it – I’m deliberately broadening the term, so that I can speak to a range of critical traditions that aren’t bound to that particular Frankfurt School trajectory. At the same time, I actually regard this particular concept of contradiction – which, in my reading, begins with Habermas (in other words, it’s not something I see in a strong sense in first generation Frankfurt School work) and which, regardless of where it begins, I view actually as a falling behind a significantly older notion of contradiction, one that goes back at least to Hegel, and that I see as integral to Marx’s work.

    To me, Habermas misreads Marx’s concept of contradiction – something that isn’t important in itself (in spite of how much I write on Marx, my main concern isn’t to save Marx from misreadings), but that I think has certain important flow-on effects for what Habermas thinks he needs to do, when he tries to talk about contradiction in a new way, in order to get beyond the first generation Frankfurt School impasse.

    I’m making a deliberate move back behind that impasse, trying to recapture a vision of critique that I think was, for various reasons I haven’t gone into on the blog, obscured with the social transformations associated with the late 19th and early 20th century. I’m not doing this, of course, because I think we have any obligation to a sort of “founder’s intent” loyalty to Hegel or to Marx, but because I think that Marx and Hegel actually offer a means of problematising certain things that are not graspable with latter-day Frankfurt-style critiques. I’ll have to cash out this sort of claim, of course, so there’s no particular reason to believe me now 🙂

    I’m just trying to indicate very quickly that I don’t think I lack an understanding of the notion of contradiction that Habermas, Honneth and some others put into play: I am actively disagreeing with the trajectory of a particular critical tradition. So, yes, I understand that a particular line of Frankfurt-inspired critical theory believes that it needs to analyse the nature of, e.g., recognition as such or similar categories, in order to demonstrate why we should prioritise certain normative possibilities over others – and that it does this, often, via a sort of functional analysis of a particular sort.

    I tend, both to contest the analysis, and to think that we need to theorise in a different way, the issue of how we select among available social potentials (although I agree that this then becomes a very complex question – but, from my point of view, it’s a question that must be addressed, rather than evaded by appealing to functionalist notions that I think I could probably criticise as misrecognised hypostatisations… And I know this is a big claim that I’m not cashing out – so I’m not offering this in the spirit of “here, believe me!”, but in the spirit of “this is the sort of argument I’d need to make”…).

    On Habermas: yes, I understand that the world concepts emerged historically and were previously crusted over (in Habermas’ narrative) by traditions and myths and ritual practices that, in his account, prevented the immanent logics of the three spheres from being differentiated and available to practice and reflection. It’s not that I misunderstand this narrative: it’s that this is a form of narrative that is extremely common – a common structure to certain Enlightenment-era notions of critique, to political economy, etc.

    Habermas actually doesn’t see the emergence of communicative action as inevitable – at least, I wouldn’t personally accuse him of this: he’s very clear that his tracing of historical logic is intended to be retrospective and, from this perspective, a reconstruction from our point of view. I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt on the issue of teleology. But he still offers an historical narrative that is, essentially, a narrative whereby what is already latently there comes to be discovered or released in history. I’m after a more fundamental theory of the practical constitution of these normative ideals – I think that I can explain their practical origin in much more “contingent” ways than Habermas does and, if I can do so (I said this a bit in the discussion with Nate) I don’t need some of the more implausible “hypotheses” that Habermas’ approach requires. However, again, this isn’t something I can cash out here and now – although there are sketches and gestures of how I would go about this around and about on the blog. I’m just pointing to the direction of a different critical possibility.

    The specific dispute between Brandom and Habermas around the instrumentality of communicative action isn’t relevant to my personal critique of Habermas – although I actually think Brandom is right, to the extent that Habermas will (at times – and in that particular exchange) wield the notion of the function served by communicative practice. Brandom’s complaint here is not that Habermas treats communicative practice instrumentally – Brandom’s complaint is that Habermas is actually making a tacit metaphysical claim here: there is no particular basis for prioritising one particular dimension of what language does, and then grounding specific kinds of normative ideals from that particular kind of “doing”, on the basis that this “doing” is “the” function of communicative practice. (I realise I’m being very abbreviated with this – my apologies – I would need a lot more time to develop what I’m saying here.) Personally, I think Habermas could afford to let go of the thing that’s irritating Brandom here – but doing so would remove certain claims to a stronger form of “objectivity” for certain kinds of normative ideals (which might react back on other aspects of Habermas’ theory).

    Very inadequate response on my end – many apologies… I’m happy to keep going back and forth, but a certain level of sketchiness is unfortunately likely to characterise my replies until after the Tassie conference… 😦

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  12. rob November 30, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Hi Andrew

    So I disagree with Rob that the normative evaluation of alternatives can only take place in the future; rather it is the future itself that is normatively evaluated from the standpoint of the present conditions of social existence.

    Thanks for the nod. I posted two comments at What In The Hell…?, in the second of which I very briefly and insufficiently acknowledged and responded to your point. Alas, the second part has been caught up in the spam folder…

    I just wanted to say that although I don’t always do justice to it in everything I write, I try to imagine a more complicated relationship between future and present (and past, too). I agree that evaluation of future possibilities can take place in the present (and, indeed, very regularly does take place). The emphasis on the future has to do partly with what Nate has described as “a pretty simply historicizing and relativizing move, against any positing of us as absolute and all that” — in other words, trying not to presume in advance the ways (and the forms) in which such evaluations may be received by or in the future.

    But there’s a second dimension to that emphasis on the future, which is what I try to think of as an unpresentable future today, or a trace of the future(s) in the present. (For what it’s worth, I draw this conception of futurity from Derrida’s “Force of Law” and Specters of Marx; whether or not I manage to be consistent with the ideas presented in those works is another question.) One implication — or perhaps component — of thinking this way is that the idea of “present social conditions” becomes problematic, such that normative evaluations of the future are never conducted, at least not in any simply way, from the “standpoint of the present conditions of social existence”.

    There’s a link to be made here to Derrida’s arguments about iterability, but I won’t go any further with it for fear (1) of patronising you by rehashing arguments you’re well familiar with, and (2) of putting you off by employing arguments from a philosophy that you may or may not be highly sceptical of. Instead, what I’ll say is that part of what attracts me to NP’s work is precisely the way it seems to give me an alternative vocabulary for explaining such notions as “the non-presence of ‘present’ social conditions” and “a trace of ‘the’ future in ‘the’ present”, etc.

    There’s also a whole other issue here, which I won’t go into in any detail, regarding concepts of “normativity”. Over at WITH…? I made a remark in which I effectively conceded that what I’ve argued emerges from a normative position that is not itself grounded in an argument from logical necessity. I’m actually very uneasy with the language of normativity. I use the term “normative” only as a convenience, but I do think my use of it is somewhat misleading and may be confusing some issues…

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  14. N Pepperell December 1, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    rob – Just a placeholder that I’ll pick up on some of what you’re saying here about “normativity”, and on the relationship of future, present and past, over at WITH, when I have time to get back to the discussion there (since I also want to pick up on other questions you’ve asked over there, and figured it would make more sense to do this all in one post). I have a pile of work I need to get through first, though, so it may be a little bit.

  15. Andrew Montin December 1, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    Hi Rob – I am interested in your reference to Derrida. And it just made me think of something. In my comment to Nicole’s recent “Self-Contradictions” post, I quoted Postone: “the historical overcoming of capitalism would also entail the negation of its dialectical critique.” Derrida seems to be referring to something similar when he writes:

    “Pascal cites Montaigne without naming him when he recalls both the principle of justice and the fact that it should not be traced back to its source unless one wants to ruin it. What is he himself doing, then, when he speaks of “the mystical foundation of its authority,” adding in the same breath, “Whoever traces it to its source annihilates it”? Is he re-founding or ruining that of which he speaks? Will one ever know? Must one know?”

    This quote invokes the argument of “Force of Law”, but it comes from a footnote in an essay on Foucault called “To Do Justice to Freud” (fn 14).

    Now in both cases, Postone and Derrida, they are making the point that the “historicity of the object” is tied to the “historicity of the critical consciousness that grasps it” (Postone). When critique recognizes the historicity of its object, what is it doing? Ruining it? Or refounding it by writing out of the very epistemic space constituted by the object?

    In the Foucault essay, Derrida is concerned with showing that the “secrecy effect”, i.e. the mystical foundation of authority (in this case of psychoanalysis), becomes undecidable when one attempts to locate the object of critique within a series which the object itself gives rise to – a condition Derrida calls “quasi-transcendental”. Thus in Foucault’s attempt to “demystify” psychoanalysis, Freud is found sometimes on the side of the classical age, and sometimes on the side of the modern age as the age in which Foucault himself writes. One finds this kind of structure again and again in Derrida’s work.

    Is this related at all to what you wanted to say about Derrida?

  16. N Pepperell December 1, 2007 at 5:11 pm

    Andrew – I’m going to stay back from this one for a bit, as I’d like to hear rob too, but just a quick comment that I’m very interested in having a discussion around these issues for my own benefit (and, when I say “around these issues”, I mean the general issue of whether this sort of concern applies to any attempts to “ground” a standpoint of critique, or whether it implies a particular approach or understanding of “ground” that already carries within itself a certain totalising impulse). But I may not be making any sense speaking in this abbreviated way, and I’d prefer to hear other voices first and spectate a bit… (Not to mention getting some work done on Brandom.)

    Excellent questions though – thank you for this.

  17. Andrew Montin December 2, 2007 at 1:17 pm

    H Nicole – Yes, well I think I was originally trying to read you through the lens of Critical Theory, but now I can appreciate that you’re trying to do something different.

    On the issue of Habermas, Postone makes an interesting point which I think coincides with your critique:

    “In his discussion of [first generation] Critical Theory, Habermas points out the limitations of the subject-object paradigm upon which it is based. What he apparently has retained from that tradition, however, is the thesis that capitalism is “one-dimensional,” a unitary, negative whole that does not give rise immanently to the possibility of a social critique. This may seem paradoxical inasmuch, as we have seen, one of his theoretical intentions has been to move beyond the fundamental pessimism of Critical Theory. Nevertheless, it has become clear that he has sought to do so by subsuming capitalism within a larger conception of modern society, rather than by rethinking Marx’s critique of capitalism as a critique of modernity.” (253)

    When you talk about the need for “a more fundamental theory of the practical constitution of these normative ideals” than Habermas gives us, one way to understand this is to locate the constitution of normative ideals within capitalism as modern society. They wouldn’t simply be identified with the normative imperatives of capitalism itself, of course, but rather a more complex movement between the normative ideals of capitalist social relations, interactions with nature (not to be understood in a purely instrumental sense), authentic self-relations and historical evaluations of past societies. This contrasts with the Habermasian narrative which would invoke a broader notion of modernity that includes within it the non-capitalistic, emancipatory ideal of communicative rationality.

    Am I on the right track?

    (Don’t feel you have to respond immediately btw! But I’m looking forward to continuing the discussion at whatever pace is realistic under the circumstances.)

  18. N Pepperell December 2, 2007 at 3:03 pm

    Yes, definitely on the right track (and, as I’ve mentioned, Postone’s work has been very influential for me, so I’m generally sympathetic to his critique of the Frankfurt School trajectory in particular – to his sense that this tradition responds to a perceived limitation in the theory of capitalism by embedding capitalism in something else (what Nate beautifully calls a “bigger coathook”), where an alternative might be to reconceptualise capitalism itself less “economistically” and in more properly social theoretic terms).

    I have some discomforts with aspects of how Postone tries to do this, although I like (and am myself trying to follow through on) the impulse of thinking a theory of capitalism as a theory of modernity. (I also think Postone’s embedding of a sort of Leibnizian notion of time in practice-theoretic terms is quite brilliant.)

    From my point of view – again, with the caveat that I really need to re-read the work in a more thorough way, and so this could simply be an unfair comment based on a poor memory of Postone’s argument – but, with those caveats: I’m far less convinced by how Postone attempts to understand the category of “abstract labour”, and his attempt to grasp the “dual character” of labour in capitalism in terms of two “functions” labour serves. I think there’s a missed opportunity, here, to capture something far more interesting in what Marx is doing with the concept of “abstract labour” (and I think the attempt to express the notion of abstract labour in terms of two functions of labour also tacitly reduces capitalism back to market-mediated relations, which Postone expressly states he’s trying not to do – I think his approach might unintentionally smuggle in certain concepts that are more closely bound to market mediation than he realises). But – seriously – I may be wrong about this: it’s a complex text, and I should take a thorough look before launching into critical comments.

    On a more quibbly note, again from distant memory, I think Postone is generally less sympathetic than I am, to the… simultaneous validity? of competing forms of critique. There’s a certain tendency in the work, I think, to believe that, if something has been linked back in some way to the process of the reproduction of capital, then other phenomena can perhaps be reduced back to this process. I think this reductive move is probably out of bounds – that it doesn’t directly follow from this kind of argument: there’s a difference between saying “this process of reproduction generates [x]” and saying “and therefore the other ways [x] seems to manifest can be taken as epiphenomena of this process of reproduction”. It’s also always felt to me that there were certain unacknowledged ontological claims floating in the background in Postone’s text – about the qualitative character of labour (although he does problematise this more than I think Habermas does), about some of the more tacit normative concepts on which the critique relies, and a few other things. I call these “quibbles”, though, because – aside from the fact that I might not perceive them to be there on re-reading – I wasn’t sure at the time whether these elements are presentational artefacts (things that are in the text because they just seemed the clearest way to express certain concepts, in the awareness that they aren’t fully adequate to the programmatic theoretical principles in the text), or whether they are actually expressive of theoretical commitments…

    When I’m back from the conference, I’m thinking of doing an occasional series on “Marxes”, running through some of the readings of Marx I’ve found most useful for my own work (aside from Postone, I tend to like Sayer, Rubin, and I’d like to write something properly on Lukacs, Sohn-Rethel, and a number of others – and I should probably cover some of the more mainstream readings, as well…). So there may be more opportunity to discuss this material much more adequately. Also, please feel free to correct anything I’ve gesturally said above – I’m quite self-conscious about tossing out vague critiques of a text that deserves a better reading than I can provide right now.

    I’m curious in which context you’ve encountered Postone? I recommend him from time to time on the blog, but you’re perhaps the second person who’s ever spontaneously mentioned him to me – he doesn’t seem as widely known as I would expect him to be.

  19. Andrew Montin December 2, 2007 at 4:32 pm

    Hi Nicole – I actually gave a paper at the 2005 Critical Theory conference in Melbourne which offered a critique of Postone’s notion of labour as a general form of social mediation. Postone seems to have a tacit version of structuration theory in mind when he describes the commodity form as both a social practice and a structuring principle of action. But when you compare Giddens and Postone, you find that while Giddens accounts for the mediating function of labour by locating it within class relations and power structures, Postone wants to present labour in capitalism as a form of social mediation for its own sake: “the ultimate function of the forces of production is to ‘soak up’ as much living labor power as possible.” (342f.) The duality of structure has been usurped in Postone’s theory by a one-sided account of structural domination. And he never explains how this development is compatible with his dialectic of abstract and concrete labour. I can send you my paper if you like – it goes on to consider a systems theoretical version of Postone’s theory, but that just raises more problems! The most significant of which is whether it even makes sense to talk about labour as a “general form of social mediation” in a functionally differentiated society.

    I look forward to your series on Marx!

  20. N Pepperell December 2, 2007 at 5:51 pm

    I’d love to see your paper – and, from memory, and realising that I’m not seeing your full argument – this sounds similar to some of my half-remembered questions with Postone’s work. (Caveat that I will guarantee you that I will not read your paper until I’m back from Hobart… sorry about this…)

    My impulse was to wonder whether Postone might strangely get caught up in Marx’s presentation of his categories (which, admittedly, is an easy place to get caught), and therefore might miss what “abstract labour” is, as in, what the ontological status of this category is, in Capital – which is strange to me, in a way, because Postone sort of “shouldn’t” miss this, given other things he says programmatically about Capital.

    I read “abstract labour” in Capital as something that is produced – as in, it’s a shorthand term Marx uses to describe the results, or unintentional side effects of collective practice, that determine what gets to “count as labour” – as a phrase Marx uses to hold onto the question of why the category of “labour” is so narrowly operationalised and flattened in collective practice in capitalism. So I don’t see “abstract labour” as a function (or as something that labour “does”), but as a result or a product of a rather wide range of other social practices that are aiming at producing very different results (and that do produce very different results, but that also happen, accidentally, to produce what Marx refers to as abstract labour).

    Like so much else in Capital, abstract labour is presented in the text as a category whose ontological status is difficult to understand (it’s genuinely, in Marx’s argument, hard to grasp how “abstract labour” is being generated in collective practice, because the process through which it’s generated is impersonal, unintentional, and only really perceptible over time: look at any immediate object of empirical experience, in any synchronic state, and “abstract labour” won’t be visible). As a result, the “gestalt” of something like “abstract labour” floats around like a concept in search of an empirical referent – sometimes confused for being a conceptual abstraction, sometimes confused for being some kind of telos driving historical change, sometimes confused for being some physical or material property that subtends human practice, etc. So you get all kinds of theories (lay and formal) popping up, attributing the category to all sorts of empirical referents (including, I think, Postone’s notion that it’s a specific “function” of labour), with most of these theories not quite capturing what, from the standpoint of the argument in Capital, is the collective process that generates this category.

    So, from my point of view, Postone shouldn’t be talking about a “socially mediating function of labour” at all. Historically specifying this mediating function (which he does in order to differentiate his approach from other forms of Marxism that take labour to be socially mediating in a transhistorical sense), doesn’t quite go far enough. Once he does what he does, though, and places the category of abstract labour on that particular empirical plane, then, yes, it opens his approach to a variety of critiques.

    That said, I don’t so much mind Postone’s use of Marx’s recurrent metaphors of how production in capitalism seems geared to “soak up” human labour: Marx does say things like this, and is wrestling, among other things, with the question of why human labour power should remain so important, given the tendencies toward increasing productivity – so, the question of why all those science fiction futures, where robots do all the work, etc., never materialise, but instead we just seem to reconstitute labour in new forms when we displace it in others. I take this to be what Marx has in mind by “the labour theory of value” – he means something more like “why the hell do we value (human) labour so much?” This can still be an interesting problem to consider, even if “labour as a social mediation” might not be the best tool with which to crack the problem.

    I’m ambivalent toward systems theoretic approaches – I like the concept of what I sometimes call a “lumpy” social context, and I want ways of conceptualising internal complexity within a social context (and, as well, less totalising ways of understanding capitalism). But I think that the notion of a “functionally differentiated society” is sometimes wielded in a less grounded way than I’d like to see – in ways that can make it difficult to make sense of homologous qualitative changes that periodically sweep through what are posited as autonomous subsystems. I think Postone has a valid point that part of the problem on the table for contemporary theory is to provide the conceptual tools for thinking the complex sorts of progressions and reversals that seem to have characterised recent structural transformations. The question then becomes whether his theory offers the best foundation from which to begin to consider such questions.

    I guess I’m saying that I like elements of how he poses the problem, but I agree with you (and I think a number of reviewers also pointed this out) that the issue of potentials for transformation is left very underdeveloped in the book, there are some tensions between programmatic statements, on the one hand, and what the book actually does, on the other, I am tempted to attack some of the problems he poses in a different way, and tack on some other problems that he doesn’t appear to consider, and (least important) I don’t quite share the underlying reading of Marx.

    And I may change my mind on all of this when I actually find time to re-read the book properly… Hopefully I haven’t blabbed so much that rob will lose track of your original question!!

  21. Andrew Montin December 2, 2007 at 7:51 pm

    Hi Nicole – This post is a bit of a change from the technical nature of our discussion thus far – it is Sunday after all! But I don’t think it’s irrelevant.

    I saw “Into the Wild” last night, and perhaps the most powerful scene in the film (in my opinion) was when the main character “Alex”, who is tramping around the U.S., hitches a ride on freight train and is discovered and then brutally beaten by a security guard. The guard tells Alex he never forgets a face, and that the next time he catches him on a train he’ll kill him. And then he justifies it all by saying something like: the railroad company won’t allow its liability to be violated by freeloaders. Thinking about the nature of “abstract labour”, I think the brutality of that scene really sums it up for me. Because he doesn’t work, Alex’s living body, the organic basis of his existence as something which takes up space, occupies an ambivalent status within a universal system of exchange-value. It seems that even the unemployed body is worth something, as a potential “liability” (through injury or death, no doubt calculated on the basis of potential earning power); but since Alex refuses to compensate for that “risk” through his labour, his body on the train becomes less than zero from the perspective of capital – its occupation of that space becomes a form of theft. One can think of countless other real life examples. Abstract labour penetrates to the very heart of what it means to be alive in a capitalist / modern society. It becomes visible in the very blows struck against the bodies of those “workers” (who have only their labour to sell) who either don’t work or don’t work enough.

    And talking about movies, your comment about sci-fi futures made me think of The Matrix as a great example of an allegory for abstract labour. Somebody else has probably pointed this out already, but the great twist in The Matrix which distinguishes it from similar dystopian visions is that the triumphant machines keep humans alive in a comatose state, ostensibly as a battery-like power source. In such a world, labour has been completely taken over by machines – no humans do any work. But at the very moment of liberation from toil, humans become completely dominated by the system of labour. In this perfected logic of capitalism, work does not become redundant, but instead people become redundant! And again we find that the human body, as the organic basis of life, must give itself over to the system of exchange if it is not be obliterated – in this case, by providing a feeble amount of energy which the machines can feed off.

  22. N Pepperell December 3, 2007 at 11:05 am

    The Matrix scene is classic – I remember cracking up at the sheer ludicrousness – the energy costs of keeping the humans alive, would exceed whatever paltry energy they contribute. But as a metaphor for the irrationality of what Marx is calling (ironically, in my reading) “the labour theory of value”, it’s fantastic: Benjamin, who believed we always whisper social potentials and constraints to ourselves through our kitsch, would have been pleased. 🙂

  23. rob December 3, 2007 at 12:53 pm

    Hi Andrew

    Thanks for the very much for your comment. It does indeed go quite a way towards filling in the blanks I left in my earlier comment.

    Thanks, too, for reminding me of the “Justice to Freud” paper. It’s been ages since I read it, and I don’t think I ever read it closely enough.

    The point about ‘the “historicity of the object” [being] tied to the “historicity of the critical consciousness that grasps it” (Postone)’ is one that is very often at the forefront of my thinking whenever the question of history and historicism comes up, and that’s what I was trying to get at in my lengthy comment at Nate’s WITH…?. I chose the language of iterability when I replied to you largely because, when dealing with questions of “the past”, there’s sometimes a temptation to see the structure of undecidability (or re-markability) that you speak of as a quality emerging from the temporal distance between the decades- or centuries-ago past and the present, whereas the notion of iterability seems (to me) to make it easier to think of temporal distance as inhering in any form of presence, and therefore even in “the present”. (Having said that, I’ve just noticed, quickly scanning the text, that D. is very able to bring home the point about the non-self-identity of “our age” and “our contemporaneity” in “To Do Justice to Freud” (pp.259-60).)

    Happily, I think your reference to the Foucault/Freud paper also provides us with a concrete example for explaining that point in relation to the earlier question about normative evaluation and its relation to the future and the present. For the way I see it, Derrida’s “rescuing” of Freud doesn’t amount simply to an argument about the relevance or otherwise of Freud, nor simply a reading and evaluation of Foucault’s body of work. Rather, it is the production of an alternative to be bequeathed (as it were) to the future: it’s the creation of another possibility — another version of Freud, another way into the work of Foucault, and therefore another take on the philosophico-interpretive “programs” and practices that those intellectual figures engage and exemplify. Thus, D.’s paper (and his work generally, IMO) amounts to an expansion of an existing set of alternatives, so as to give the future as many options as possible to decide among, whenever any event in the future is so pressing as to call for such a decision.

    And that’s (sort of) what I mean when I suggest that the normative evaluation of alternatives takes place in the future. However much it remains pressing upon “us” today to evaluate the past and the present, as well as visions of the future, no such evaluation is undertaken in the name of the future unless it works to “relativise” such evaluations (i.e. including its own evaluations), to imagine another way, and to defer the task of evaluation (or, if you like, of counter-signing one’s evaluation) to a future that must remain unimaginable.

    Don’t know if that satisfies. In any case, it’s not intended as an objection to anything you’ve written here, but rather as a supplement, to which I owe you a deal of thanks for providing me with the opportunity to formulate it.

    Regarding much of everything else that’s come up in this thread, I should confess that I am something of an imposter: my Marx is very underdeveloped and my knowledge of the history of Critical Theory can be reduced pretty much to a chapter from Negative Dialectics here and a couple of papers from Habermas there, so when it comes to issues related to those figures, I’ll just kick back and enjoy show…


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