Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Hobart Roundup

The conference just finished, with the final day including: some excellent presentations (as in all other days of the conference); an AGM for the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy, which has existed as an informal organisation for some years, but which is this year incorporating itself as a formal body, which led to some interesting organisational discussions; and a fantastic, provocative closing panel on the future of continental philosophy that, for an interloper like me, was incredibly useful, quite aside from the issues officially being debated, in providing background information on the history and institutional organisation of philosophy in Australian universities.

I found myself sketching a number of notes during the final day in particular, relating to how to explain “what I do” in terms that might be intelligible to other people (of course, this just means that I’ll get back to Melbourne, try to talk to a sociologist, and find that now I’m making no sense to that discipline… ;-P). It’s a funny feature of a conference like this, how much it makes me feel like a sociologist – at the same time as I enjoy and believe that I follow the papers and the discussion, I inevitably find myself wincing at how “sociological” my own material sounds compared to anything else I was hearing. If I were attending a sociology conference, of course, I’d be feeling like a philosopher or an historian… Such is interdisciplinary life…

I was amused to find myself fielding the following questions over and over again at the conference:

First, when people learned we were presenting on Brandom (and assuming the reaction to this wasn’t “who?”), the question was: “Are you presenting on the big book?” Answer: yes, indeed, we read the big book – and, in fact, have also read the “little” book, which, for some currently unreconstructable reason, motivated us to tackle the big book… Unfortunately, I also read what appears to be the unknown book, at least to most folks attending this conference – but only after we had presented our paper (for some reason, this struck me as a logical form of leisure activity after the presentation – don’t ask…). In that book, I found what seems to be a relatively clear answer to some of the questions LM and I had been debating with one another before our presentation, debates which led to much last-minute revising on both our parts, in the hope of being a bit clearer about what we weren’t certain we yet understood. This whole experience suggests to me that, next time around, I should perhaps try to read, not only the “big” book, but indeed all the books, before scoping a presentation topic… ;-P

I should also note that L Magee seemed somewhat displeased by my efforts to reassure people that the “big” book perhaps wasn’t quite as difficult as it seems on first glance: some first impressions, apparently, are best left undeconstructed… ;-P

The second question we consistently received – more of a startled observation, really – came bursting out when people learned where we’re currently studying: “Really?! I didn’t know they had a philosophy department!” *shuffle shuffle* Yes, well… There might be a reason for that…

Onto other topics:

For those wanting something substantive to read, Nate has a question up at what in the hell…, which relates to how “my” Marx – the Marx I’m claiming becomes an immanent, reflexive critical theorist – maps onto more standard periodisations used in Marx scholarship: assuming that it’s plausible to think of Marx as an immanent reflexive critical theorist (which, I realise, some readers may find to require a bigger leap than others), is this interpretation something that can be plausibly applied to his entire corpus? If not, when did his work begin to express recognisably immanent reflexive characteristics? When did his work most completely express these characteristics? How would this map on to other ways of interpreting the periodisation of Marx’s corpus?

I’m very tired at the moment and, tiredness aside, I’m not sure my answer to this question is as “strong” as it perhaps should be. I’m comfortable reading the first volume of Capital as an immanent reflexive critique in the sense in which I use this term. I see some aspects of Capital as critical of some earlier positions Marx would have held – as a sort of self-diagnosis or self-critique, of what I think Marx comes to characterise as insufficiently historicised positions. So I see him as retaining a great deal from his earlier work, but only by transforming it into a much more historically specified perspective made available immanently within the context he is criticising.

I tend to see the Grundrisse as a major transition point, where Marx shifts to a more explicitly immanent perspective – but I’m not an expert on the evolution of Marx’s thought, and so this is an impressionistic position. There are moments in earlier works that are very consistent with what Marx does in Capital. There are also, just to keep things interesting, moments in Capital that aren’t consistent with what I’m claiming Marx is doing in Capital. I tend to read these moments as eddies in and around a main argumentative current – and to interpret them variously as vestiges of earlier positions (Marx often lifts passages from earlier works into Capital – sometimes, I think, being so fond of a formulation that he doesn’t fully reconsider how it might need to be worked to be adequate to its transplanted context), or incautious polemical statements, or conjunctural passages where Marx seems to have a very specific context in mind, without explicitly marking that context. Of course, it also doesn’t necessarily trouble me that there should be inconsistencies: I’m trying to explore what the work can suggest about a particular potential for theoretical work, rather than claiming perfection or completion in the realisation of this potential.

I haven’t done sufficient work to feel confident about what I think Marx does after publishing the first volume of Capital. I read the second and third volumes as compatible with the way I read volume one, although the incomplete nature of these works means that the sort of careful textual unfolding I’ve been doing with the first volume, wouldn’t be able to proceed in exactly the same way: the form of presentation is muddier, as are a number of substantive theoretical issues. Marx spends his final years doing intensive anthropological studies, and it would be extremely interesting to look into whether any of that reacts back on what he then thought would be required for an adequate critical theory – but this issue remains something that I’m curious about, but have never looked into directly.

Apologies for not being more coherent on this – it’s hitting me as I type how tired I am from the conference. Time, I think, for me to go play in Hobart, and let others say what they think about this question.


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