Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: December 2007

Making It Last

Like all young children, my son enjoys repetitious games. He’ll ask: “Again?” And then: “Again?” On and on until I finally announce a countdown – a number of times we can play the game, before we hit the final time, and then have to stop. Around this time last year, I mentioned on the blog the first moment when it began to occur to him that perhaps there might be some way to evade the dreaded “Last time!” decree. That effort didn’t work, but this initial failure was no reason to stop trying to circumvent the system… The current strategy involves waiting for the “Last time!” – and then making a break for it. So, we might be playing ball, for example, and get to the last toss – and, instead of actually taking his “last time”, he’ll run off with the ball and shut himself in a room.

This doesn’t, however, mean that the adult with whom he’s been playing is free to go off and leave the game unfinished. If my son walks out, and – as normally happens – finds the adult has given up after a few minutes, and wandered off to do something else, this is the occasion for tears and indignation: “I want my last time!!!” So back to the game he and the adult will go, preparing for the final ball toss. But once again he makes a break for it, and ends up hiding with the ball in his room.

The desire, apparently, is that the moment should be frozen – the game must last forever – eternally suspended, hanging incomplete – as long as my son doesn’t effect the “last time” by enacting his side of the event.

New Year Traditions

I posted on this last year, but was thinking of it again: a lovely New Year’s tradition that ZaPaper from Chicago-Beijing posted:

A long-held superstition in my family–I’m not sure about others’–is that whatever you do on New Years Day is indicative of what you will be doing all year. We have always have been careful never to have needless arguments or sulky fits, insofar as that is possible, on January 1.

Last year, L Magee tempted me into a midnight post on the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology, which we then read together during January. I’m wondering whether to turn this into a tradition – posting a midnight reflection on the Science of Logic, to open our reading group discussion for this coming year? Or perhaps I should pass this tradition on to LM, who is currently writing on the history of logic?

Full of Stars

So I set out to write a bit more on the section on “Force and Understanding” from Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit – if only to give Alexei something to read when he gets back from break. Somehow, I’ve written a monster, which goes back over much of the ground covered in my previous post on this section, and then struggles through to the end of the chapter. Even for this blog, I suspect that the resulting post is too long to deposit in its entirety on the front page. I’ve therefore pushed the content below the fold.

Since lately I seem to think of Hegel only in relation to film, and since Wizard of Oz illustrations didn’t quite seem to carry me through the end of this chapter last time, I’ve found myself associating to 2001: A Space Odyssey while writing this post – must be Hegel’s discussion of what happens to consciousness when Understanding encounters Infinity. The illustrations used below are fragments of the full images from the gallery of the 2001: A Space Odyssey Internet Resource Archive. It may just be me, but these images seemed somehow appropriate for a discussion of how consciousness moves from its initial experience of itself in an uncertain and tenuous relationship with an external object, through its confrontation with infinity, toward Self-Consciousness.

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Blogging Cheers and Fears

Joseph Kugelmass has posted his reflections on the best and worst of intellectual blogs from this past year over at The Valve and The Kugelmass Episodes. Rough Theory gets a nod for its revamped appearance and for the recent illustrated reflections on Hegel’s Phenomenology. Since those reflections pertained to Hegel’s argument that essence arises from appearance, I’ll conclude that this is a recognition of the high quaility of the content, in the guise of recognising the form… ;-P

Among the blogs Joe recognises on the positive side of the spectrum, he draws special attention to a number of newer blogs, including Alexei’s Now-Times, Wildly Parenthetical, and the folks over at Perverse Egalitarianism.

On the more negative side, Joe worries about a certain ebbing of more intense debate as the year has gone on, and is critical of what he sees as a growing concern to mobilise blogging for career purposes, of parodies in search of a punch line, and of posts with many sequels (not sure I’ve seen any of those), which Joe regards as an abjuration of the ideal that “each piece must be its own revolution”.

Joe’s wish for the coming year:

Tiny Tim on Bob's shouldersSo, what’s ahead for 2008? I can’t predict trends, but I can say what I hope for, and that’s a renaissance of words in their essential loneliness. Intellectual blogging is a medium that thrives because it captures the quietude of those moments when we seal ourselves off from our surroundings in order to consider the printed words of another person. The tremulousness of the word, the expectation of an answer, the abjection and shamelessness of writing for self-publication: in order to be honest, a blogger has to be vulnerable, more so even than the author of a book. What she is writing apparently had to be blogged to be written at all. Given the voluntarism of the blogosphere, polish is merely comic; risk is the only thing worth admiring. The risk of saying too much, the risk of being unread, the risk of being misread—intellectual blogging must change from an indifferent exercise of dignified exposition into the willing practice of risk.

The Ambivalence of Organisation

I just noticed the following in an article by Kenneth Davidson in The Age Business Day:

It is an inconvenient truth that unionised work forces can contribute to labour productivity by driving up wages faster than non-unionised work forces and this provides a stimulus to innovation, as employers will be motivated to economise on the use of labour by capital substitution.

Although this wasn’t my focus when I wrote recently on Marx’s chapter on the Working Day, this is one of the themes that plays out in that and subsequent chapters: the organisation of the working classes and the regulation of capital by the state and the public sphere are positioned in Marx’s narrative as factors that open the door for properly modern, mechanised industry – for the ongoing increases of productivity that characterise capitalism.

Davidson’s article doesn’t go on to address the paradox that working class organisation can thus lead to a displacement of the need for human labour – or the question so central to Marx, of how the need for human labour nevertheless continues to be reasserted in new forms, no matter how high productivity rises.

For readers from outside Australia who might click through to the article: no, Davidson isn’t just engaging in rhetorical flourish when he mentions the need to reinstate unfair dismissal laws.

Random Hegel

The other day, I was looking through Andy Blunden’s “The Meaning of Hegel’s Logic”, which I gather Andy prepared for the first Hegel Summer School back in 1997. I laughed at this comment, which Andy makes in his introduction:

Following Lenin’s advice, we recommend a “materialist reading” of the Logic. That is, where Hegel talks of a “spirit” which expresses or “posits” itself in Nature or human affairs, we read a law or process manifested or expressed by Nature or human activity; when Hegel starts talking about God, we skip to the next paragraph.

I meant to toss the comment up on the blog at the time, but got distracted and forgot. What reminded me was the following comment, from Hegel’s discussion in the Science of Logic of “With What Must Science Begin”:

If, therefore, in the expression of the absolute, or eternal, or God (and God has the absolutely undisputed right that the beginning be made with him) — if in the intuition or thought of these there is implied more than pure being — then this more must make its appearance in our knowing only as something thought, not as something imagined or figurately conceived; let what is present in intuition or figurate conception be as rich as it may, the determination which first emerges in knowing is simple, for only in what is simple is there nothing more than the pure beginning; only the immediate is simple, for only in the immediate has no advance yet been made from a one to an other. Consequently, whatever is intended to be expressed or implied beyond being, in the richer forms of representing the absolute or God, this is in the beginning only an empty word and only being; this simple determination which has no other meaning of any kind, this emptiness, is therefore simply as such the beginning of philosophy. (121)

Something about Hegel’s “and God has the absolutely undisputed right that the beginning be made with him” just kills me (you’ll have to forgive me – I frequently – and sympathetically, as a matter of sheer enjoyment in what he’s doing in the text – think Hegel is hilarious – I realise this reaction is highly idiosyncratic, but I still can’t seem to keep myself from sharing…). And the whole passage reminded me of Andy’s advice.

For those who haven’t seen it yet, the Hegel-by-Hypertext site, part of the ever-useful, has online versions of a number of Hegel’s texts, and links to commentaries and other resources. As long as I’m assembling links, other useful sites for links to Hegel’s works and commentaries are J. Carl Mickelsen’s University of Idaho site (hat tip Self and World), and


One of the nice things about living and working centrally in Melbourne, is that you rarely really need a car. Read more of this post

A Highly Complicated World in Continual Motion

I was just reading Paul Lafargue’s 1890 Reminiscences of Marx, and was struck by his attempt to convey what Marx was trying to present – from context, I would assume the reference is to Capital:

I worked with Marx; I was only the scribe to whom he dictated, but that gave me the opportunity of observing his manner of thinking and writing. Work was easy for him, and at the same time difficult. Easy because his mind found no difficulty in embracing the relevant facts and considerations in their completeness. But that very completeness made the exposition of his ideas a matter of long and arduous work…

He saw not only the surface, but what lay beneath it. He examined all the constituent parts in their mutual action and reaction; he isolated each of those parts and traced the history of its development. Then he went on from the thing to its surroundings and observed the reaction of one upon the other. He traced the origin of the object, the changes, evolutions and revolutions it went through, and proceeded finally to its remotest effects. He did not see a thing singly, in itself and for itself, separate from its surroundings: he saw a highly complicated world in continual motion.

His intention was to disclose the whole of that world in its manifold and continually varying action and reaction. Men of letters of Flaubert’s and the Goncourts’ school complain that it is so difficult to render exactly what one sees; yet all they wish to render is the surface, the impression that they get. Their literary work is child’s play in comparison with Marx’s: it required extraordinary vigour of thought to grasp reality and render what he saw and wanted to make others see. Marx was never satisfied with his work – he was always making some improvements and he always found his rendering inferior to the idea he wished to convey …

Marx had the two qualities of a genius: he had an incomparable talent for dissecting a thing into its constituent parts, and he was past master at reconstituting the dissected object out of its parts, with all its different forms of development, and discovering their mutual inner relations. His demonstrations were not abstractions – which was the reproach made to him by economists who were themselves incapable of thinking; his method was not that of the geometrician who takes his definitions from the world around him but completely disregards reality in drawing his conclusions. Capital does not give isolated definitions or isolated formulas; it gives a series of most searching analyses which bring out the most evasive shades and the most elusive gradations.

Marx begins by stating the plain fact that the wealth of a society dominated by the capitalist mode of production presents itself as an enormous accumulation of commodities; the commodity, which is a concrete object, not a mathematical abstraction, is therefore the element, the cell, of capitalist wealth. Marx now seizes on the commodity, turns it over and over and inside out, and pries out of it one secret after another that official economists were not in the least aware of, although those secrets are more numerous and profound than all the mysteries of the Catholic religion. Having examined the commodity in all its aspects, considers it in its relations to its fellow commodity, in exchange. Then he goes on to its production and the historic prerequisites for its production. He considers the forms which commodities assume and shows how they pass from one to another, how one form is necessarily engendered by the other. He expounds the logical course of development of phenomena with such perfect art that one could think he had imagined it. And yet it is a product of reality, a reproduction of the actual dialectics of the commodity.

I thought I should tuck the comment here for future reference… The Reminiscences as a whole is a touching document, reflecting on Marx’s work rituals, family life, friendships – even the way he organises his study. I particularly enjoy moments like this in the piece:

He never allowed anybody to put his books or papers in order – or rather in disorder. The disorder in which they lay was only apparent, everything was really in its intended place so that it was easy for him to lay his hand on the book or notebook he needed. Even during conversations he often paused to show in the book a quotation or figure he had just mentioned. He and his study were one: the books and papers in it were as much under his control as his own limbs.

Marx had no use for formal symmetry in the arrangement of his books: volumes of different sizes and pamphlets stood next to one another. He arranged them according to their contents, not their size. Books were tools for his mind, not articles of luxury. “They are my slaves and they must serve me as I will,” he used to say. He paid no heed to size or binding, quality of paper or type; he would turn down the corners of the pages, make pencil marks in the margin and underline whole lines. He never wrote on books, but sometimes he could not refrain from an exclamation or question mark when the author went too far.

I find the following comment particularly poignant:

There is no doubt that Capital reveals to us a mind of astonishing vigour and superior knowledge. But for me, as for all those who knew Marx intimately, neither Capital nor any other of his works shows all the magnitude of his genius or the extent of his knowledge. He was highly superior to his own works.


I was looking for something on Amazon, and couldn’t help but be distracted by the following review of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit:

Franky, I was unimpressed…, 19 Jun 1997

By A Customer

They say Hegel was big. They say he was important. Personally, I find him impenetrable. A man who writes this poorly deserves not to be read, which is just about his present status: unread and therefore ignored, yet still, perversely, revered. I say Hegel should be held up as an example of poor writing, radical obscurantism, ugly proto-fascist (Royalist-Kaiserist) politics and neologistic fantasism (what the hell is a phenomenology anyway?)

Coming Unshelved

I’ve been to my university library three times today. It’s about to close for a week for the holidays, and I’m finding myself having panicky, pre-withdrawal, symptoms. I keep anxiously associating to books I’ve been meaning to read, and running down there to check them out. This impulse is generating new, flow-on anxieties. As it happens, several of the books I’ve attempted to check out, aren’t held at this campus, and so have to be recalled from other places: they won’t get here before the break. Some irrational part of myself – evidently certain that, over the next week, I’ll read through the seven books that I’m in the middle of right now, the dozens of other books I’ve had littering my office, untouched, for months, plus all the books I’ve just checked out today – is somehow finding energy for anxiety that I won’t have immediate access to these recalled materials. It’s like part of me is going, but, if you don’t have these exact books, a major breakthrough in your research will, will, er… um… be delayed a week!

The reality is, what I need most to do in the coming months isn’t really to read (although I’ll certainly be doing a fair amount of that, as well), but write – and write – and write. My theory is the absurd anxiety over lack of access to reading material, has more to do with the recognition that now, finally, is that “quiet time” I’ve been asking for – away from meetings and everyday distractions – so that I can finally revise a whole pile of material into some sort of coherent and linear shape. Wish me luck… 🙂