Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

What in the hell…

did you make me do, Nate?

I’ll be blaming you when I’m not sleeping tonight… ;-P

What I’ve done here is what I sometimes also do with L Magee (who will, no doubt, be glowering at me for working on this, rather than on Brandom…) – which is to provide your comments in full, in blue text, with my responses interspersed in black. This probably isn’t the most systematic way to respond, but it hopefully increases the chances that I won’t completely drop a major point. A lot of the responses aren’t very adequate – sometimes intrinsically, because the questions are too complicated to deal with adequately without their own full treatment, sometimes extrinsically, because I’m a bit tired and, particularly toward the end, just felt increasingly fuzzy and unclear, and so cut some responses short, hoping I’ve at least written enough to justify claiming to have tossed the ball back into your court… ;-P

For those reading on: since this is a long response to a substantive post, I’ll put the whole thing below the fold. If you haven’t read Nate’s original post, do that first, as I chop his post into pieces in order to respond to it; he was responding to my conference talk here.

Also, I notice as I’m preparing to post this that a conversation has been going on over at what in the hell… on this – I’ll just flag briefly here that I haven’t read that conversation (I wrote this post offline, and am just cutting and pasting it into the blog), let alone addressed whatever it says – that conversation I will need to pick up on over the weekend because, having written this, I’m definitely grounded and not allowed to come out to play again until my homework’s done.

Below the fold for the conversation… (which, I should also add, is rather dramatically unedited – urk!!)

what in the hell… is immanent reflexive critique?

I’ll tell you one thing, it’s not what I ought to be writing about just now. But I have poor time management skills.

I just got around to reading the talk NP posted that she gave recently at a conference. Go read it. The talk is on Marx and NP’s larger project of writing on what she calls immanent reflexive critical theory (IRCT), defined I think as a critical theory which can account for its own origins within the contradictory reproduction of a society.

She starts out with a taxonomy that I like for its own sake. NP lays out five versions of critical theory which are not IRCT. NP doesn’t use all of these names, but I’ll call them performatively contradictory, functional, external, impossible-totality, and bigger-coathook. The performatively contradictory are those theories which are cryptonormative (NP takes the term from Habermas), which is to say, they express a claim about normative claims which should bar them from making other normative claims but they do so anyway. (A simplistic case: “All universal statements are wrong!”) Functional are those which reduce things to their role in a given society. External look for some sort of outside or remainder. Impossible-totality (which as NP points out are cousins to external) argue that alternative possibilities are ineliminable. Bigger coathook look to something larger to hang critical claims on, something which contains society, so to speak.

Just very quickly on the taxonomy: I should have included at least one additional category: approaches that see critical sensibilities as sedimented in culture. The issue here is that theories that attempt to ground critical sensibilities in this way, tend (1) not to be able to grasp potentially global resonances for critical concepts (since “culture” tends to be understood in a more local fashion), (2) to lack an explanation for how particular cultural “sediments” might connect up to contemporary practices (why some elements of historical tradition come to be perceived as relevant to contemporary concerns, and inflected in particular ways), and (3) not to be able to explain why such sedimented critical sensibilities aren’t “utopian” in the sense of being unrealisable (this last would be a concern with some other approaches, as well). I don’t know why I left this option out of the typology, particularly given that I’ve been discussing related issues over at Grundlegung recently.

I will, though, say that I felt extremely self-conscious for some reason for having included a typology in the talk at all – I find things like this useful when trying to get my head around the general patterns in a large body of literature, but it sort of felt weird putting it into a formal talk. So I’m reassured that at least someone else found it useful.

NP’s typology is more skillfully laid out than I do here, go read it. NP takes pains to stress that she is not setting these up to reject them for not being IRCT, but I still do get the sense from NP that there’s some specific good about IRCT lacking in these five types. My own tastes tend to run toward the external (as in appeals to some sort of common sense – an admittedly questionable category but one that I’m committed to – as a sort of “aww come on, let’s be honest, is it _really_ so surprising that X happens in Y circumstance?”; as well as suggesting that our present circumstance is only possible if we presume something which implies that other circumstances must also be possible), and to a lesser extent to the impossible-totality and the functional. The impossible-totality perspective I take less as a matter of positive assertion and more as a procedure, a sort of deflationary impulse like I mentioned in my last post.

Yes, there’s a complicated walk here. I’m much more sympathetic to some of the positions in the typology than I am to others, but I didn’t want to distract the talk into those areas, so there’s a great deal left unsaid in terms of why I find it useful to make these sorts of distinctions.

So, for example, “cryptonormativity” or performative contradiction tends to annoy me immensely – not simply because it’s self-contradictory, but because, if too much attention is paid to the overt claims that no normative judgements are being made, I feel this sort of theory can have a negative effect on political practice – that this form of theory can make it seem illegitimate to make judgements against elements of contemporary society that do merit judgement and rejection.

Functionalism, by contrast, can be fine – it can be useful to understand the function something fills in some particular context. My objection to functionalist analyses is that there’s a certain tendency for… er… actually existing functionalisms to overplay their hand. This happens in a couple of different senses.

First, the identification of a function can be taken as a sufficient explanation for the emergence of a phenomenon – so an analysis, for example, of how something is brought into being in social practice, or of why something has some specific qualitative form, drops out, replaced by a pointer to the function something fills. This happens often in functionalist forms of ideology critique, for example: e.g., “concepts of universal human rights function to protect the interests of the bourgeois class” or similar: this kind of argument doesn’t explain why the “function” – “serving the interests of the bourgeois class” – itself exists, or why, given that it does exist, it comes to be filled in this form – why not, for example, assert some notion of election by a divinity, etc? Effectively, this is a “who educates the educators” kind of question – or a question about what sorts of constraints might also apply to the dominant social groups who benefit from the contemporary organisation of society, such that these groups are also not fully in control of the situation from which they nevertheless currently benefit. Similar considerations apply to functionalist analyses outside of ideology critique – the issue with this line of discomfort with functionalism is, basically, that I don’t think that identifying the “function” filled by something is the only interesting question we can ask – even though it can be one of the questions worth asking.

I have a more fundamental criticism of a different kind of functionalist analysis: this would be more relevant for approaches like Habermas’, and is one of the issues I’ve been discussing recently with Andrew Montin in the comments thread for the paper. Habermasians sometimes point to, say, the “function” filled by communication in human society as such, and thus try to ground their critique in some kind of function that they perceive to be ineradicable. The strategic point of this kind of reference to “function” is to give a particular set of critical ideals a kind of “hard” objectivity, something that can’t be eradicated by the transformation of some specific society, because it purportedly inheres in socialisation as such. This is probably not what would occur to most people, when I use the term “functionalism”, and my critique of this position is somewhat complicated, so I left it deliberately vague in the original talk. Rather than dragging the discussion here down into my complaints with this somewhat idiocratic (if popular in some traditions) use of functional analysis, I’ll just point people to the ongoing discussion with Andrew – people can see what I’ve written there, and add to that discussion, if they want more detail.

I have a complicated reaction to notions of critical sensibilities arising from the “outside”. On the one hand, I see no reason why this shouldn’t happen (assuming that the “inside” here is being understood in the narrow sense in which I used it in the paper – “inside” the constellation of practices that reproduce capitalism, where capitalism is not itself understood totalistically, so there are various degrees of “outsides” that aren’t metaphysical) – no mechanism I could currently posit that would enable socialised forms of critical sensibilities, would allow me to draw a hard line between critical sensibilities associated specifically with the reproduction of capitalism, and sensibilities associated with other sorts of human practices.

On the other hand, with reference to the sorts of theoretical claims that most existing forms of theory make – the specific critical sensibilities they define – I often think I can provide an analysis that does link those specific sensibilities back to the reproduction of capitalism (not necessarily exclusively, however – my goal isn’t a reductionist move that says that only one form of social practice is relevant for the conditioning of critical sensibilities – my intention is more to make a case that such sensibilities will be promoted by some specific set of practices, whether or not they are also promoted by others).

I’m going much too quickly here, and not stating very clearly what I mean, or why I’m bothering to worry about this in this particular way… There’s a complex knot of issues that circulate around the question of “critiques from the outside”, which probably need to be thematised in their own right: on the one hand, I “need” it to be possible for certain kinds of sensibilities to be institutionalisable in some non-capitalist form – any critical theory aiming at social transformation needs something like this – otherwise critique would be entirely “utopian” in the sense of unrealisable.

If I think it’s possible, though, to take ideals and practices that originate within the reproduction of capitalism, and institutionalise these ideals and practices in some other, post-capitalist form, then there’s no particular reason for me to think this doesn’t already happen, right now (and, in fact, I think it does already happen, right now – and that promoting such alternative institutionalisations can be a pivotal dimension of a practical transformative politics – not least because I tend to think that critical sensibilities become stronger and more “available”, the wider the array of ways that they come to be reinforced in everyday experience). So, on one level, I’m quite positive about the issue of critical ideals resonating out of a quite diverse range of practices (all of which, of course, are currently unfolding within a capitalist context in a broad sense, but my point is that I am actually not trying to reduce such practices back to such a context, as I think down that path lies the sort of hyperstructuralism that leaves you uncertain how one would ever get beyond the context under any circumstances).

On another level, though, to the extent that some approaches conceptualise critical ideals as arising in some “pure” sense outside capitalism (as needing to be somehow unassociated with the reproduction of capitalism, in order to be regarded as “critical”), I think we’ve probably lost a grasp on important characteristics of the context, at least as I understand it – and this can cause its own specific problems for a politics aimed at transformation. Among other things, critical ideals that are understood as “outside” in this more drastic sense can more easily be positioned as “utopian” in the sense of unrealisable. As well, my own argument would be that critical ideals that are generated within the reproduction of capitalism, can, due to the ways they are generated in collective practice, easily be misrecognised as inhering in some other kind of empirical object – in human nature, for example, or in “society as such”, or in other such categories. This second kind of misrecognition is ambivalent in its implications: it can be very powerful for movements to think they are acting in the name of “human nature” – but it can also lead movements to expect that certain things will be easier or more automatic than I would take them to be, leaving them unprepared in some specific ways for difficulties that might arise in the course of political struggle, and it can also “naturalise” some aspects of capitalism, smuggling elements into critical ideals that have unintentionally anti-critical implications… But I know I’m not thematising this adequately here – my point, I guess, boils down to: I have a complicated relationship to the notion of critique from the outside… ;-P

Moving right along: impossible-totality approaches are on one level fine for me – I agree. And this sort of notion can be particularly useful in dark times – it’s not something I want to dismiss. I just want something, if we can get it, that does more potential concrete “work” than this concept can do – something that helps us grasp a bit more than these approaches can.

Bigger coathook approaches are always complex to criticise – it basically takes a fully developed theoretical alternative, and the nature of the critique becomes, essentially, Laplace’s: I have no need of the hypothesis of that giant coathook in the sky, in order to construct my critical theory… ;-P (Sorry – I’m not trying to be dismissive here – just a bit tired and therefore speaking more cavalierly than I should be: what I’m trying to say is that the critique of bigger coathook approaches, from my point view, consists in showing that it is possible, through a much more “situated” form of analysis, to do the sorts of theoretical work that these theories believe requires a more “foundational” theoretical framework. This doesn’t mean that the bigger coathook doesn’t exist – this is what I mean by the Laplace comment – but that we don’t necessarily need to posit that it exists, in order to do the kind of critique I’m trying to do. Of course, I would need to show this with reference to specific forms of theory, rather than making a blanket statement like I’m doing here…)

For NP, IRCT is not a given, at least not for us. IRCT is a maybe, so to speak, in two senses. IRCT “involves an attempt (…) to provide an account of the genesis within collective practice of critical sensibilities.” And, for NP it’ s not at all clear that these attempts can succeed, for us today. NP sees “no reason to assume that a process of social reproduction should generate systematic and therefore theorisable potentials for an alternative organisation of collective life.”

I have some thoughts and questions about this. First, if IRCT is an attempt, then it seems to me that there’s really two types of theory here. One is AIRCT – Attempted AIRCT – and the other SIRCT – Successful IRCT. All SIRCT are AIRCT but not all AIRCT are SIRCT: some attempts fail. If not, then the language of attempt would be misplaced. (To be an attempt there must be a possibility of failure.) What about AIRCTs that fail? (FIRCT – Failed IRCT.) Presumably some FIRCTs mistake themselves for SIRCTs. Presumably some of these and other FIRCTs are or could be also one of the five above types of critical theory which are not IRCT. Right? It seems to me that NP is being charitable in saying that IRCT is an attempt. I think really, though, IRCTs must succeed to REALLY be IRCT. Only SIRCTs are really IRCTs. If I bake a cake but accidentally spill ground glass and cigarette butts in the batter then bake it at 700 degrees for 60 minutes, I have not actually baked a cake and the product of my activity is not really a cake. At least in one important sense. In another sense I could be said to have baked a cake, but that’s an expanded sense of “bake” and “cake.” Likewise if I produce what I take to be a SIRCT but I unknowingly make logical errors and/or factual errors at key points in the process such that my argument is compromised, I have not actually produced a SIRCT.

This may not be a very adequate response, but I kind of write things like this to flag the extent to which I think a particular audience has adequate basis for thinking I’ve made my case. So I’m not so much writing about my personal perspective on whether something has succeeded or failed, but about what I think has been shown, in any sort of way that might be satisfactory to other people.

At the same time, when I say that the possibility of this kind of theory isn’t a given, I have a very specific target in mind – and a target that, to be honest, isn’t terribly popular at the moment, so maybe I shouldn’t worry as much about differentiating myself from it: there would have been a period when critical theories might have tried to ground themselves in some sort of generalised theory of historical progression – so, e.g., a position like: all societies have an internal contradiction, which points upward and onward to the next type of society in the chain, until you eventually get to us. I’m basically just trying to say that I’m not starting from that sort of strong ontological claim about the nature of society as such, or history as such, or similar. Maybe someone could defend that sort of transhistoricised claim – I’m not trying to make a strong argument about the issue either way (although I do have strong opinions – it’s just that I can be “theoretically agnostic” about the issue, if this makes sense – I can bracket the general ontological question, as I don’t need to make claims at that level).

I do, though, think the concept of immanent reflexive critique can potentially do more work if we try to “denaturalise” the notion that such a critique should be possible. If we take for granted that all societies would necessarily generate contradictions in such a systematic way that the contradiction is theorisable, then we sort of aren’t very surprised by what we find in capitalism. I think it’s more useful, analytically, to try to retain the sense of surprise – of non-taken-for-grantedness – as a sort of critical methodological principle, to help us pay closer attention to the puzzle of our current situation.

On another level: I’m trying to scope out a space for a type of critique, such that this type is potentially separable from my own personal way of trying to follow through on this concept. I might stuff up – but maybe the concept of an immanent, reflexive critique might still be operationalisable in a better way, by someone else. So my attempt might be bunk – but maybe the concept might still be of use in some other form.

And on yet another level: yes, I do think this kind of critique is possible – and that it provides some potentially important insights that don’t seem to be expressed as strongly in other forms of critique. But. I’m still writing. I haven’t cashed out these kinds of claims. And I don’t feel comfortable talking about this as more than an attempt, in relation to my own work, when I’ve done so little that can be tossed out for public discussion and critique…

So the vocabulary of “attempt” smuggles in all of these different sorts of intentions…

Second, while I very much like that NP says “attempt” and doesn’t presume all this is possible, I think the term “attempt” implies some criterion for success, which implies knowing what IRCT would look like. How would we get such a knowledge without a successful example of IRCT to derive said knowledge from? We might perhaps just reason our way there, but that doesn’t feel exactly satisfying… if we can just reason our way to a successful definition of IRCT such that we can tell a real attempt (an attempt with an actual shot at success) from a half-hearted attempt (an attempt which really doesn’t have a chance), or an attempt from a success, then it seems that IRCT could just be achieved by reasoning. If that’s the case, though, then where does the grounding withing collective practice bit come in? I’m not sure I’ve been clear here and I’m sure I can be any clearer, but it seems to me that this is tension around which metatheoretical questions will keep coming up. (Presumably the “account” given in IRCT is a theoretical account rather than a historical account, or rather than just some story about what the theory came from, right? Because this is an “account”: “a lot workers didn’t like their jobs and didn’t like that they had to have jobs so they wrote some stuff about that in order to explain to other people why they didn’t like it and they built some organizations and there was a lot of conflict and they made some improvements but not enough and some of those improvements have since been reversed; we’re trying to do the same thing today because we don’t like our jobs and we can draw on the material they left behind” but it’s not a theoretical one or a very good one.)

The issue of by what standards you would judge such a theory is complex. Ultimately, any theory with emancipatory intent would need to be judged for whether it can actually contribute something to a much broader emancipatory political project. You then get into questions relating to how you understand such a project: in terms of some determinate endpoint that must be realised? Or in terms of some sort of ongoing critical process that might potentially be aimed at any particular social configuration?

I sit strangely with reference to this question, perhaps: I do think I have a determinate sense of what would be required in order for someone to be able to say “capitalism doesn’t exist any more” (this may sound like it should be an easy sort of statement to make, but I tend to understand capitalism in terms of a pattern of historical change, and therefore a bit more abstractly than some other approaches might). I don’t, though, personally have a closed sense of what an emancipated society must be, in a concrete sense – I tend to think of this as something created in the course of practices of a wide range of kinds, and not as something I’m trying to predefine theoretically. I don’t know if this comment makes sense – apologies if this is really unclear.

This sort of… er… “outcomes based” evaluation aside, the standard Hegelian Marxist sort of notion of theoretical adequacy would involve something like: how well does the theory account for core dynamics in contemporary society in a way that (1) makes sense of the sorts of competing theoretical accounts that arise, by demonstrating how those accounts can be interpreted as plausible, but partial, accounts of some specific dimension of a more complex context than those accounts grasp, (2) makes sense of itself as a collection of critical insights that can also be interpreted as plausible, within that more complex context, and (3) do 1 and 2 in such a way that the critical perspective of the theory is connected to practical potentials for emancipatory transformation. The “standards” for how you would know if you’ve done such a thing successfully, short of the achievement of some of sort of emancipatory transformation, then do become very complex. The challenge placed on the table normally with Hegelian Marxist approaches is a sort of “let’s see you do a better job, then” – a setting up of problems and a drawing attention to strange dynamics within the contemporary social context, such that an alternative theory needs to address these things as well. This isn’t an adequate response, and I’m happy to pick up on this in more detail if you’d like to redirect with further questions – I’m conscious that I might not be approaching the question here, the way you intended it.

But, yes, you are right that this is intended to be a theoretical account, rather than a historical description or some sort of “genealogy” – although the theoretical account should be able in principle to make sense of empirical trends.

NP takes Marx’s work as an example of IRCT. I assume this means SIRCT, that Marx didn’t just attempt IRCT (and I assume that for NP Marx did not fail to produce IRCT). It strikes me that there are possible responses to this. First, if we say that Marx’s moment wasn’t all that different from our own then describing why Marx’s IRCT was possible is to explain why it’s possible now. That is to say, why is it “Marx produced IRCT” insufficient evidence for “IRCT is possible today”? (That is, if Marx produced IRCT why is IRCT “an open question” as NP insists – an insistence I like, by the way.) Second, if we say that Marx’s moment was a lot different from our own then we can’t just do the “describe Marx and we describe us” move, but I think this would need to be established. I take it that since NP says both (I think) “Marx produced IRCT” and “IRCT may not be possible today” that for NP there has been some shift between our time and Marx’s time such that the conditions of possibility for IRCT have changed. What is this shift? Third, how and why was Marx able to produce IRCT? Fourth, maybe time/epoch is a mistake, maybe “a process of social production” isn’t temporal so much as spacial or a matter of social-strata. That is, NP’s question is basically “can _we_ have IRCT” with the implication that “we” does not include Marx. That’s fair, but the implied definition of the “we” here isn’t clear to me.

I do think Marx developed a theory of this sort – I don’t think he “failed” (unless we’re judging the theory solely according to the standard of whether it helped to effect the sort of transformation it hoped to achieve – I don’t think Marx’s theory has yet done that). And I also think that, by and large, the theory he developed remains applicable. But I don’t think I’ve come anywhere near showing this, and I think many other readings of Marx would not fall under the “immanent reflexive critique” model, so I have a dilemma when it comes to discussing Marx’s work. If I say that I’m just channeling Marx, this will give most people entirely the wrong idea about what sort of theory I’m trying to develop. So I’ve phrased this in the same sort of “provisional” voicing that I used in talking about “attempts” above – I don’t think I can walk this walk in a manner yet that I would expect to be convincing to most people, and I therefore don’t have the entitlement, in a sense, to make certain kinds of claims – about this general concept of critical theory, or about what Marx was trying to do. To some degree, the sort of agnosticism I’m expressing in these sorts of passages is meant to reflect the viewpoint of the audience listening to the talk, if this makes sense: it marks what I think I’ve shown them, and therefore what I think they have grounds for thinking, based on the extent of the exposition thus far. It may be a strange or misleading way to write – I’m not sure. But it is more cautious – deliberately so – than my own opinions about Marx’s work.

My best guess would be that I might think capitalism is a slightly more abstract object than Marx might have perceived it to be (and he perceives it as a very abstract object already, I think) – but this isn’t a strong claim, just a provisional reading. I also think that Marx sometimes retains some metatheoretical statements that aren’t quite adequate to what I see him as doing in Capital. I’m currently trying to work through how seriously he takes his gestures at quantification in Capital, as I might think that some of this falls behind the logic of the main thrust of his analysis, as well – but here I’m not confident that I know what he meant, let alone whether I agree with him. So there are things like this that I’m still working through.

But, personally, no: I’m not trying to suggest that Marx has been surpassed in any foundational sense – I find the theory more persuasive as a foundation for conceptualising capitalism than I find many other forms of critique, and I see my current work as a process of bringing to the surface some of the metatheory and textual strategy and the rest, basically to make it more possible for other people to read the theory that is already being expressed. I just don’t think I’ve done enough of this work for other people to be persuaded – hence the explicit provisionalness of the paper.

NP writes that the turn away from IRCT among theory folk involved an aversion “to the notion that critical ideals should be grounded in ‘what is’,” which is one the one hand reasonable but on the other hand NP seems to suggest this was a mistake. It’s not clear what counts as being part of “what is”, though. Put maybe simplistically, I like to just point to historical examples – organizations like the heyday of the IWW and events like general strikes – and say “I mean something like that, only now, here.” I’m generally happy to leave the specifics of that kind of transposition implied (ie, not thought out clearly) rather than made explicit. The problems I’ve run into more often involve a failure to compellingly imagine (ie really believe in) such an event/organization rather than an ability to think it through. This connects to prior discussions w/ NP re: posts here and here and relates in a sense to some of the stuff in my last post which was all “yay for history!”

The issue of existents is another one of these really complicated things, where my own categories may not line up neatly with what other approaches see themselves to be doing. I won’t be able to answer adequately here, other than to say that, from my point of view, at least some other forms of critical theory are missing a category for a specific type of social “existent” that is important to my own work – a kind of existent that arises as a “real abstraction” that is unintentionally generated in collective practice. Sometimes, approaches confuse this “real abstraction” for some other form of existent (a “material” reality, for example); sometimes, they interpret it as a “conceptual” abstraction (so, as something that doesn’t have an “objective” existence other than, perhaps, as some entity in a shared set of cultural beliefs); sometimes, they treat it as a “negation” (as something left behind after everything determinate has been stripped away – and therefore as a sort of more fundamental ontological reality than other sorts of existents – or, conversely, as a simple absence or lack). So this short passage in the paper basically gestures in a very limited way at a concept that is very central for me, but that I simply can’t articulate quickly (at least at this point).

My position is basically that I “get” why certain forms of critical theory panicked at the consequences of, say, thinking that centralised, state planned, mass production would necessarily be emancipatory, and I also “get” why certain forms of critical are deeply aversive to the notion that some party apparatus should get to hold court over when the historical circumstances are “ripe” for revolution: these are historical lessons worth learning, and I’m sympathetic to the fact that these historical experiences were, effectively, traumatic for certain forms of critical theory. However, some of what emerged out of this trauma is, from my point of view, still very much expressing “existent” things – it just isn’t quite grasping how it is doing so. Similarly, my theoretical approach is also channeling “existent” things – I’m just trying, following Benjamin, to make the present more easily “citable in all its moments”, so that we have a somewhat freer and easier movement across all the various potentials we are collectively constituting, rather than abridging our sense of our practical options in various symptomatic ways.

I know this isn’t an adequate response, but maybe it gives at least a small sense of where I’m coming from…

I need to wrap this up and there’s much more I’d like to say but it’ll have to wait. For now, one final question. NP writes 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.” I like this. I take this to mean that historicizing) is insufficient practice. (Is that right NP?) I assume this means that theoretical practice is insufficient practice (taking “historicizing forms of perception” as a type of theoretical practice), but there’s another possible interpretation, which is that another type of theoretical practice is (also) needed. It’s also not clear to me if the claim is that historicizing (and/or theory?) is insufficient or if historicizing is a sort of block in some cases – the phrases “tend to distract us endlessly” could suggest not only “more than historicize” (and/or theorize?) but also “sometimes historicizing is like a light that blinds us to some important things” which would mean not merely “insufficient” but actually harmful in some instance. That’s all for now.

I mean this in a couple of different senses. I do think that historicisation by itself is insufficient practice, and I also do think that theorisation (if this is understood in the narrow sense as some sort of specialised activity) is also insufficient. But I was trying to make a more specific sort of point with this section of the paper: I think that there’s a particular sort of dichotomy that gets enacted unintentionally, involving the tendency to direct “historicising” sensibilities toward particular kinds of practices, while directing “naturalising” tendencies toward other sorts of practices – where both “historicisation” and “naturalisation” are also constituted as thought they intrinsically carry certain qualitative characteristics. I think that an alternative kind of theory can begin to loosen up, both our default tendency to ascribe those qualitative characteristics, and our default tendency to draw the history/nature boundary in the places that we do, and therefore begin to facilitate certain forms of practice. But potentials, for me, are always constituted in practice and realised in practice – formal theoretical reflection can, in the best circumstances, become a useful part of such practices, if it doesn’t hypostatise itself too strongly as something that floats above other sorts of practices that are, from my point of view, inflecting the same potentials at around the same time.

Out of time and a bit out of steam… Not sure that this has managed to hit on the spaces you were trying to mark out with your questions – but these are all issues that should keep recurring…

Got to get some work done!!!

One response to “What in the hell…

  1. Nate November 29, 2007 at 5:01 pm

    hey NP,
    this is really helpful, thanks, and I’m glad the post was generative instead of annoying. I’m grounded too, so it’ll be some time before I’m able to respond. Among the things that helped were your remarks about your presentation as focusing on what you think you have established by argument – being “more cautious – deliberately so – than [your] own opinions about Marx’s work.” I’m off to bed. I’ll get back to you eventually.
    take care,

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