Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

All the World’s a Stage – And We Merely Players?

scene from As You Like ItSinthome from Larval Subjects has a very nice post up today, reviewing and improvising around Kenneth Burke’s A Grammar of Motives. Sinthome appropriates Burke’s work to discuss questions relating to how different theoretical and philosophical approaches thematise the relationship of agency and context, showing how Burke’s system can be useful in grasping the emphases of differing approaches:

Burke proposes five broad categories (his pentad) to discuss motives: Scene, act, agent, agency, purpose. Acts are done in a scene, by an agent, often with some particular tool or means (agency), for the sake of some end. By Scene Burke is thus referring to the background or setting of an action. Agents, of course, are those doing the action. Acts are the acts done. Agency is the means by which it is done (a tool, speech, one’s body, and so on). And purpose is that for the sake of which the action is done. It is necessary to emphasize that these terms are extremely broad. Scene, for example, could be language as when talked about Lacan in the context of how the subject is formed in the field of the Other. However, language can be an act or agency in other contexts. Similarly, when Lucretius claims that everything is composed of combinations of indivisible atoms falling in the void, he is talking about scene. When Marx talks about conditions of production he is talking about scene. When Freud talks about drives and the unconscious he is talking about scene. When a religious person talks about God’s plan he is talking about scene. All of these are competing visions of scene. When Walter Ong talks about how the technology of writing transforms the nature of thought, he is talking about how an agency transforms the agent that uses it. Yet in another context, when Foucault or Kuhn talks about the impersonal murmur of language in which we find ourselves thrown, writing, archival texts, are no longer agencies, but are scenes.

Burke’s pentad is of interest in that it allows us to see, a bit more clearly, where the philosophy is placing its emphasis. For example, Sartre, Husserl, Kant, and so on, would be philosophies of the agent. The agent is placed front and center and other elements fall into the background. Most contemporary philosophies in French theory place emphasis on the scene, as in the case of Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault, and many variants of Marxist thought and critical theory. More recently we’ve begun to see philosophies of the act, as in the case of Badiou or Zizek. And so on.

For Sinthome, the real interest in Burke’s work doesn’t lie so much in its classificatory potentials, however, as in the ways in which the classification makes it possible to grasp limitations or blindspots in particular forms of theory. Sinthome explores this issue with reference to limitations in theories that over-emphasise scene:

whether we’re talking about Foucault’s difficulties in explaining how counter-power arises from power, difficulties among the “linguistic idealists” in explaining how it is possible to think anything new if we are products of language, Frankfurt school theorists who endlessly ape the questions “how could this be thought at such and such a particular time?” or self-reflexive questions about “how the critic is able to adopt a critical stances when that critic is itself embedded within the system?” and so on. These are problems that emerge specifically when the scenic element takes over as the overdetermining instance of motives or when scene is the ultimate explanans for everything else. Thus we say that agents are formed within scenes or situations (whether scene be understood as language, power, economics, social fields, etc), and that as products of scenes acts can only arise from scenes and return to scenes. Put differently, under this view it is impossible for an act to exceed the way in which it is structured by situations, for the act is a descendant of the scene just as the son is a descendant of the father (and is said to thereby share the father’s characteristics).

What is prohibited, it would seem, is the introduction of something new into the situation… Something that would transform the configuration of the situation or scene itself. What is required, it would seem, is the thought of an act unconditioned by scenes.

Sinthome moves from here to a discussion of the act – the possibility of a performance that might depart the text of the scene.

This post is interesting and rich in its own right, and the original contains much more than I have reproduced here: readers should follow up at Larval Subjects. Sinthome’s post reminded me, though, of several issues on which I haven’t written anywhere near enough, or with sufficient clarity, here, and which I’m sure lead to (my own!!) recurrent misrepresentations of my theoretical positions, particularly with reference to concepts like immanence and reflexivity. One of these issues I raised in a comment at Larval Subjects (still in moderation at the moment), which I’ll reproduce here as the context relates to some of what I’ve begun to write in the thesis-related posts on Marx. In a very rough way, this comment thematises two issues on which I plan to do much more writing:

(1) the issue that the relationship of “agency” and “scene” may not be able to be posed abstractly – that this relationship itself may be produced or change over time; and

(2) the issue that Marx adopts a methodology that involves unfolding potentials for agency immanently from within its object, not as a general methodology, but as a specific substantive claim about the determinate characteristics of capitalism. This specific substantive claim does not require a denial of the possibility for other sorts of agency that might operate in a capitalist or other context.

Although all of the thesis-related material on Marx talks to some degree about how Marx understands the relationship between forms of subjectivity and forms of “objectivity”, I do have a chapter planned down the track on Marx’s very strange thematisation of the reproduction of capital as a play, in which social actors adopt roles – performing and thereby gaining practical experience with certain dispositions, without these roles, however, determining which empirical social actors will perform them, or dictating that social actors who do perform them are thereby reduced to these roles, or predeciding how the dispositions associated with a particular role relate to dispositions that arise in other ways: in Brandomian terms, there’s a lot of “messy retail business” happening in this aspect of Marx’s theory. But that’s a topic for a different post, when I can develop the concepts much more adequately.

For the moment, I wanted to reproduce over here the comment I’ve written at Larval Subjects, which addresses points one and two above, albeit in a very truncated fashion – storing the comment over here will hopefully prod me to come back to this issue more adequately over the coming months. My comment hangs off the quotation from Sinthome’s post with which this passage begins:

Frankfurt school theorists who endlessly ape the questions “how could this be thought at such and such a particular time?” or self-reflexive questions about “how the critic is able to adopt a critical stances when that critic is itself embedded within the system?”

This may sound counter-intuitive, but this is precisely what the first generation Frankfurt School theorists don’t do. They are responding to a situation in which the ideals of a particular kind of Marxism – socialised means of production, centralised state planning, etc. – appear to have been realised, only to reveal that it is historically quite possible to “realise” such things, without this carrying any emancipatory consequences in its wake. They therefore become intensely critical of theories of “scene” – in the sense that the reduction of agency to “scene” becomes, for them, the target of their critique. What they don’t do, however, is make the assumption that the reduction of agent to scene is a simple theoretical or conceptual illusion. In other words, they historicise the question of the production of agency, rejecting the assumption that the conditions of possibility for, or the nature of, agency should always be thought in the same way.

In this, perhaps without realising it, they were pointing back to Marx, whose development of an immanent critique of capitalism was not predicated on a metaphysical claim about the relationship of scene, agency, etc., but was instead a thematisation of certain specific potentials for certain sorts of agency that arise within this social configuration. What often gets overlooked in readings of Capital is the very explicit discussion of contingency and of phenomena that specifically cannot be theorised – such things are all over the text, explicitly labelled as such. The distinctiveness of capitalism, for Marx, lies in that its process of reproduction involves certain sorts of “necessity” than can be theorised: like the Frankfurt School after him, Marx takes this “necessity” as the target of his critique, and also does not believe that it will drive toward any automatic emancipatory overcoming of the social form. He does, though, think that a grasp of the ways in which this necessity is produced can say something about potentials for agency now.

I take Marx to be doing something odd with notions of immanence and reflexivity – with a methodology associated with these concepts that, in key respects, he borrows (with critical amendments) from Hegel: I do not take him to be endorsing the position that critique must account for itself immanently and reflexively as some sort of general methodological principle – I suspect he would take that as an indefensible metaphysical claim (certainly I know that I would take it as an indefensible metaphysical claim). What I think he is saying, in adopting an immanent and reflexive methodology in order to discuss capitalism, is that this particular object has strange properties – that the object is produced such that key characteristics, including certain potentials for agency, will be overlooked if its process of reproduction isn’t thematised through an immanent analysis that draws out those particular potentials – because, for determinate reasons that are specific to this object, another form of analysis is very likely to naturalise the object in ways that obscure potentials for transformation.

In this sense, Marx is repurposing Hegel’s notion of a “science”, and the methodology that accompanies this notion, to a very different effect and with a very different set of premises – not least with the goal of addressing possible challenges that his own theoretical approach is “utopian”. Marx is aware that the naturalisation of a social context can take a number of forms – most not as naive as the simple claim that things have, e.g., always been this way. Many forms of naturalisation understand the historicity or the contingency of the context, but assert, e.g., various forms of technical justification that things must be reproduced as they are: large populations require it, complexity requires it, post-traditional sociality requires it, etc. The reason Marx offers an immanent critique, in my reading, is not that he denies that agency could possibly arise in some way unpredictable with reference to the “scene” provided by the reproduction of capital, but that an immanent approach allows him to refute these forms of naturalisation, by demonstrating very clearly that the transformations that represent his critical ideals, involve the appropriation of moments that are currently produced in the process of the reproduction of capital. The notions of immanence and reflexivity in Marx’s work, I think, are aimed here, rather than directed to the question of how agency can or cannot arise in some prohibitive sense.

With reference to this question, it’s interesting that, when Marx decides to compare Epicurean to Democritean philosophy in his student work, what draws him to Epicurus is, in no small part, Marx’s criticism of the determinism of the other approach – something that Marx rejects as being a sign of the one-sidedness of the theory. These early interests should perhaps be a caution to approaches that want to read Marx as a theorist of the determination by the base…

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7 responses to “All the World’s a Stage – And We Merely Players?

  1. Sinthome February 4, 2008 at 5:54 am

    Thanks for this and the post on Lucretius, N.P. I would agree that the relationship between agency, act, and scene cannot be posed abstractly if by abstractly you mean independent of one another. As I intimated in the post, one of the more interesting features of Burke’s thought is the way in which he’s able to uncover certain paralogisms, antionomies, and paradoxes within particular structures. Burke proposes that in order to think the act we must think in terms of a prototype. God’s act of creation functions as a prototype of any act in the sense that it allows us to discern 1) that there’s always something about any act that can’t be explained in terms of the scene (otherwise the act would be mere motion), and 2) the act creates something new. However, the moment we try to think the act in these terms we find ourselves caught in all sorts of difficulties. Burke traces these difficulties [briefly] through Medieval theology, focusing on the dispute of what might have motivated God to act (is the good good because god willed it or did god will it because it’s good). That is, even with the purist conceivable act we find ourselves pushed back to scenic issues.

    This can be found in Badiou and Zizek as well. In the case of Badiou, for instance, the declaration of a truth and the procedures that follow that declaration are precipitated by an event (an element of scene, albeit a special one). The question I’m groping towards, then, is not one of opposing an abstract agent or act to scene, but rather determining how something like agents and acts might be able to emerge within a scene without those agents and acts being overdetermined by the elements of scene. It’s really not a question I can very precisely or clearly formulate at present.

    One possibility I do find promising, however, is that of a sort of “bootstrapping”. That is, suppose that an act is largely precipitated by the scene. Everything depends on the temporality of the act. If we conceive acts as temporally instantaneous, we will be likely to reduce acts to motion or scenic determinations. We get more resources if we conceive acts as temporally elongated, unfolding over time. That is, it’s possible to think of something new being created in the course of an act unfolding as immanent developments of the act itself, not the situation. For example, in the writing of a novel the initial move to write might be purely motivated by scenic determinations (one’s socio-economic status and how it individuates you, reigning styles, reigning modes of writing, etc). However, as you write the novel you begin to discover problems specific to the novelistic and stylistic space itself that don’t arise strictly from the situation in which the novel is being written. This is a sort of creation ex nihilo that introduces something into situations that weren’t there before. These in turn become scenic elements of their own (in that the written work becomes an object among objects in the world). I’m not quite sure what I’m trying to get at here.

  2. N Pepperell February 4, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    Hey – I’ve just done a long response to your questions over at Larval Subjects – I wasn’t completely sure where to answer what, and so apologies that, because questions were asked about Marx over there, I answered them there – in terms of readership interests and such, it might have been more appropriate to swap the two responses…

    In terms of your question above about “abstraction”: I do agree that act, scene, etc., need to be thought in tandem, but that’s not specifically what I was trying to thematise above. I was interested more in keeping open the possibility – at least at the level of a sort of working agnosticism – that the relationships between these things might not always be the same – not simply in the sense of shifting over historical time, but in the sense of being best thematised in different ways with reference to different aspects of some particular time.

    The interest for me, personally, in trying to maintain this sort of agnosticism, is that I see capitalism as bifurcated in a particular way, such that certain social institutions – the sorts of concrete institutions that we think of as “intuitively social”, tend to fight over politically, etc. – are, in the context of the theory I’ve been trying to work out here, institutions that are denaturalised to some degree by the context itself. I use an argument along these lines to talk about why we suddenly start finding it so intuitive to think about “the social” or to think about “historical determination” or similar concepts. Another dimension of social practice, in terms of the theory I have been exploring here, involves a long-term historical patterns enacted in and through the transformations of these more “overtly social” institutions. This pattern is both more difficult to see (because, synchronically, it exists nowhere else but in existing institutions), more persistent than other consequences of social practice, and “really” abstract – a form of abstraction enacted in practice, rather than a conceptual abstraction narrowly conceived.

    Where the context is so multilayered, thinking agency becomes, for me at least, quite complex – and not necessarily amenable to any one theoretical approach. This is without even getting into the whole issue that I don’t understand the theory of capitalism at which I’m gesturing above, as a sort of overarching theory to which all other things can be reduced. I’ve argued in other places that the “mechanisms” Marx uses, for example, to make the case that certain dispositions arise as moments of everyday practices associated with the reproduction of capital, in principle can’t be restricted just to the practices associated with the reproduction of capital – his own theory, in other words, opens up to and invites tandem forms of theorisation.

    The notion of “bootstrapping” that you use above, though, is something that I also think is promising. I haven’t used the term, but I take this sort of concept to be tacit in the notion of making history, but not in conditions of our choosing: already in this formulation, right or wrong, there is a rejection of the reduction of social actors to scene – social actors have at least the possibility to make history. But by improvising with what we have at hand, bricoleurish, likely without full cognisance of what the hell we’re about to do. Some of my favourite moments in Capital address the issue of unintended consequences – Marx will draw attention to some small thing – for example, legislation requiring working children to attend school for part of the day – and then talk about what this accidentally demonstrated about who can learn, and how teaching can be done, and how people need not be tracked into exclusive identities of “workers” or “students”, etc. The text unspools large amounts of this stuff – accidents – things no one intended to happen – lessons practically demonstrated, which no one set out to learn. Marx then runs around behind, pointing out the accidents, highlighting them, trying to make sure we don’t miss the implications – trying to deepen the groove in which these accidents currently shallowly run.

    I don’t know if it’s what you’re reaching for with the notion of “bootstrapping”, but I think the term isn’t a bad one for this phenomenon – a sort of blind groping forward, and then glancing back periodically to try to make sense of what we’ve done, so that it then becomes possible perhaps to make something deliberately, that previously simply befell us…

  3. Sinthome February 5, 2008 at 5:17 am

    The notion of “bootstrapping” that you use above, though, is something that I also think is promising. I haven’t used the term, but I take this sort of concept to be tacit in the notion of making history, but not in conditions of our choosing: already in this formulation, right or wrong, there is a rejection of the reduction of social actors to scene – social actors have at least the possibility to make history. But by improvising with what we have at hand, bricoleurish, likely without full cognisance of what the hell we’re about to do. Some of my favourite moments in Capital address the issue of unintended consequences – Marx will draw attention to some small thing – for example, legislation requiring working children to attend school for part of the day – and then talk about what this accidentally demonstrated about who can learn, and how teaching can be done, and how people need not be tracked into exclusive identities of “workers” or “students”, etc. The text unspools large amounts of this stuff – accidents – things no one intended to happen – lessons practically demonstrated, which no one set out to learn. Marx then runs around behind, pointing out the accidents, highlighting them, trying to make sure we don’t miss the implications – trying to deepen the groove in which these accidents currently shallowly run.

    This works well with what I have in mind by bootstrapping. The results of a practice can lead to modifications of both agents and scenes that were not anticipated by either. In this respect, the act is not strictly a product of the scene, nor of the agent engaging in the act (I can transform myself through my acts in ways I did not anticipate or expect… As a philosopher I become other than I was in my philosophical praxis). Burke comes up with some nice examples of this in the case of Medieval philosophy that resonate well with Lacan’s claims about the role served by “master-signifiers”. On the one hand, he speaks of how certain Medieval thinkers argued that “God chose the good because it is Good”. On the other hand, he argues that certain Medieval theologians argued that God’s creation must be rational because God is rational. These two claims were interconnected. The intention certainly was not to pave the way for secularism (secular investigations weren’t even conceived), yet these theological shift had the long-term effect of promoting secularism because the implication that follows from this thesis is that you can explain the world and talk about values without having to make reference to supernatural explanation. Consequently, as the details of this thesis were developed the need to refer to the divine increasingly diminished. This functions like a Lacanian master-signifier, where situating the field of language in terms of a particular key signifier can suddenly make that field appear in a very different light, producing profound reorientations of thought.

    Another problem I see with scenic philosophies is that they don’t attend enough to questions of “circumference”. By “circumference” I have in mind the scope of influence conditioning a phenomena. For instance, the circumference of a pot of water on a stove is very small or local, pertaining largely to altitude, pressure, and air temperature, and the heat of the burner. While we can say, like Whitehead, that every monad prehends the totality of the universe, the real scope of these prehensions is rather narrow in the case of the stove burner. Social theorists often talk of human beings in terms similar to stover burners, treating social circumference as the immediate social setting. However, human beings, in their relation to language, are unique in that the scope of their circumference is quite variable. I can live my life with Lucretius, Socrates, or Jesus within the scope of the circumference of my action. Our lives can be lead in light of events that occurred well before our lifetime in parts of the world geometrically remote from us (living in terms of the 60s or the Russian Revolution), etc. In short, it is very difficult to clearly delineate context for social systems. There is thus a margin of freedom enjoyed by these systems that differs, perhaps, in kind from other types of systems.

    In addition to this, my worries about Agency have also gotten me thinking more about Lacan’s understanding of the subject. For Lacan, Subject is not a substance characterized by transparency and immediacy, but is rather a void that persists in all identifications. To say that the subject is a void is to say that all the signifiers that might characterize you as a subject always end up failing by virtue of the fact that the signifier cannot signify itself (it always requires another signifier and that signifier yet other signifiers ad infinitum). What this entails is that at some level our relationship to our subjectivizations or interpellations is always precarious (“what is it that makes me this?” “am I really this?” “what do x really do?”). For subject there is always a lack of fit with the world and personal identity. It is this crack or fissure characterizing Subject that would then function as the condition for the possibility of something like critical consciousness. This does not, of course, answer the question of why someone begins to challenge available identities and personal identity at a particular point in time; though it does at least establish why, logically, such a challenge is a perpetually available possibility.

    Anyway, enough for now. I’m off to mark.

  4. N Pepperell February 5, 2008 at 5:56 am

    Yes, this is nice – I agree. There’s an issue of circumference, as well, within what would ordinarily be thought of as a “single” context – or, in terms of something like the process of the reproduction of capital, even within a single process within a context. I tend to visualise the reproduction of capital as a sort of complex topology, which provides practical exposure to a constellation of interrelated but not identical – and, in fact, often conflictual – forms of subjectivity. Social actors engaging with the practices involved in constituting this slice of social experience are therefore not performing one overarching form of subjectivity, but many different forms – sometimes in succession, sometimes simultaneously. And none of these performances is intrinsic to or binding permanently upon the social actors who empirically carry out such performances: social actors slide amongst them as part of their everyday, ensuring a certain exposure to certain dispositions, but not saying all that much about how social actors will mobilise this exposure.

    And yes: it doesn’t at all answer the question of why some one or some group begins to challenge some particular aspect of their everyday life, with reference to some specific ideal – this sort of question, in Marx at least, I take to belong to the sort of “messy retail business” that is very difficult to theorise generically. What the theory can do is to try to establish the plausible availability of certain kinds of challenges – and perhaps also cast some light on some of the things that might get in the way of certain kinds of challenges. But only on a very abstract logical level.

    But the sort of vision of social context that allows this sort of “slippage”, I think, necessarily opens the sorts of issues you raise above: that social actors are in a sense only loosely coupled, certainly to any specific theorisable perspective on the social context. The same conceptualisations that would allow social actors, say, in my account, to slide back and forth amongst practically-constituted dispositions associations with the reproduction of capital, would equally allow them to slide back and forth amongst dispositions practically constituted in other dimensions of their experience – and their experience needn’t be limited to what is happening in the immediate present, but can be extended in various ways to incorporate the proxy experiences of other times. And individual idiosyncracy also enters in, as you’ve discussed above.

    The issue with being able to say something about possibilities at an abstract logical level is that it may provide some purchase on dispositions that can plausibly be expected to be widespread – and therefore perhaps increase the possibility of articulating an ideal in a way that might resonate, or anticipate a problem that might confront a particular articulation. It also becomes possible to think of ways to expand opportunities for the practical experience of certain dispositions – or to contract opportunities for others – and so open possibilities to make certain kinds of transformation more likely.

    But I’m very tired 🙂 Apologies if this isn’t that coherent – too long without sleep 🙂 Hope the marking isn’t too much of a slog…

  5. Pingback: Of Temporality– Questions of Agency and Circumference « Larval Subjects .

  6. Pingback: Questions of Temporality « Wildly Parenthetical

  7. Pingback: Roughtheory.org » Conversations on History, Memory, and Agency

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