Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: February 2008

Science of Logic Reading Group: The Most Stubborn Error

I’ve been lagging shamefully in my discussion of the Science of Logic – the Hegel conference (preparing for it and then recovering from it) derailed other sorts of posts, such that the most recent listing of posts on the topic is still the one contained here. The in-person reading group is, however, still meeting (although the group took a break itself for the conference, which all of us were attending), and we’ve trundled our way up to the section on Being-for-Self – meaning that we finally reach the section on Quantity next week… ;-P So it’s been a bit slow… ;-P I will try to blog at least some bits and pieces from this discussion (and – ahem! – L Magee has also promised something soon).

I have only a few minutes this morning before the group meets, so I just wanted to toss up a quotation from today’s material, from the Remark on The Unity of the One and the Many, in the chapter on Being-for-Self. (I’m somewhat tempted to dedicate this passage to Wildly, who might perhaps be particularly well placed to appreciate why this passage attracts my attention… ;-P) I won’t have time elaborate, so consider this just a placeholder, with apologies that this passage might not spark in interesting thoughts in anyone else:

Self-subsistence pushed to the point of one as a being-for-self is abstract, formal, and destroys itself. It is the supreme, most stubborn error, which takes itself for the highest truth, manifesting in more concrete forms as abstract freedom, pure ego and, further, as Evil. It is that freedom which so misapprehends itself as to place its essence in this abstraction, and flatters itself that in thus being with itself it possesses itself in its purity. More specifically, this self-subsistence is the error of regarding as negative that which is its own essence, and of adopting a negative attitude towards it. Thus it is the negative attitude towards itself which, in seeking to possess its own being destroys it, and this its act is only the manifestation of the futility of the act. The reconciliation is the recognition that the object of this negative attitude is rather its own essence, and is only letting go of the negativity of its being-for-self instead of holding fast to it. (356)

There is a sense in which this passage captures the core of what I’ve been trying to do with Marx – this attempt to move beyond approaches that “regard as a negative that which is their own essence”. I’m inclined to agree with Hegel here that it is the “most stubborn error” to treat essence as negation – as something that arises when specific attributes have been stripped away – rather than as what Deleuze might call affirmation – as something constituted actively in a determinate positive shape. The framing of “essence” as “negation” deflects attention from the process of constitution – which is an important process to try to keep in view… From my point of view, critical standpoints are very often posited as negations in precisely this way – often unwittingly, in the context of analyses that see themselves as exploring processes of constitution, but that tacitly only thematise the constitution of what is being criticised, rather than also the constitution of the determinate qualitative characteristics of the critical standpoint itself, which is rather posited as an… abstraction – as something that left behind in the wake of a critical analysis of how other things are constituted. But the reading group is scheduled to begin in ten minutes, and I can’t cash out this comment now – have to run…

Theorising Potential

Via MindBlog, Alison Gopnik reflects on why children spend so much time thinking up imaginary worlds. Starting out from the notion that we are seeking an accurate picture of the world, fiction and imagination (and, one could add, critique) become puzzling problems to be explained. A slight shift of emphasis frames the question very differently:

The greatest success of cognitive science has been our account of the visual system. There’s a world out there sending information to our eyes, and our brains are beautifully designed to recover the nature of that world from that information. I’ve always thought that science, and children’s learning, worked the same way. Fundamental capacities for causal inference and learning let scientists, and children, get an accurate picture of the world around them – a theory. Cognition was the way we got the world into our minds…

I still think that we’re designed to find out about the world, but that’s not our most important gift. For human beings the really important evolutionary advantage is our ability to create new worlds. Look around the room you’re sitting in. Every object in that room – the right angle table, the book, the paper, the computer screen, the ceramic cup was once imaginary. Not a thing in the room existed in the pleistocene. Every one of them started out as an imaginary fantasy in someone’s mind. And that’s even more true of people – all the things I am, a scientist, a philosopher, an atheist, a feminist, all those kinds of people started out as imaginary ideas too. I’m not making some relativist post-modern point here, right now the computer and the cup and the scientist and the feminist are as real as anything can be. But that’s just what our human minds do best – take the imaginary and make it real. I think now that cognition is also a way we impose our minds on the world.

In fact, I think now that the two abilities – finding the truth about the world and creating new worlds – are two sides of the same coins. Theories, in science or childhood, don’t just tell us what’s true – they tell us what’s possible, and they tell us how to get to those possibilities from where we are now. When children learn and when they pretend they use their knowledge of the world to create new possibilities. So do we whether we are doing science or writing novels. I don’t think anymore that Science and Fiction are just both Good Things that complement each other. I think they are, quite literally, the same thing.

Cold Reading

So Nate has tagged me for a meme on a day when I am feeling flat and uninspired – and, amusingly, the meme sends me to an article I’ve been meaning to re-read for the longest time – it’s like the universe is conspiring against my procrastination. Next to me on the desk is Diane Elson’s “The Value Theory of Labour”, from Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism (1979, CSE Books, ed. Elson). The meme commands:

1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

There is some slight ambiguity over what constitutes the fifth sentence – do I count the fragment spilling over from the previous page? I’ll start with the first whole sentence… The three sentences (in some ways less interesting than the previous ones) are:

This does not mean that Marx was not concerned with price, nor its relation to the magnitude of value, but that the phenomena of exchange are not the object of the theory. (Again this is not a completely new thought, see Hussain, this volume, p. 84.) My argument is that the object of Marx’s theory of value was labour.

I really should take this opportunity to discuss what Elson means here, and the relationship between my position and hers. But I haven’t had coffee yet – and have a pile of Badiou to read today (note that, in spite of this, somehow Being and Event didn’t manage to be the book closest to me when I read Nate’s request… ;-P). So Badiou is coming with me for coffee, and I’ll have to write on Elson some other time…

But now I’m meant to tag people… My least favourite part of all memes… ;-P How about I pick on Tom, Ryan/Aless (by the way R/A, I’ve been meaning for ages to reply to your post on Ideology, and still intend to do so – I’ve just been caught up in other obligations), Alexei, L Magee (from whom I’m really wanting a promised post on the concept of sublation, but maybe this will get things started… ;-P), and Praxis.

Fragmentary Ontological Temptations

For some reason, I’ve been exhausted since the conference. I don’t think it is a reaction to the conference itself, but probably more to the way in which the process of writing the paper for this event, provided an excuse to pull together much of what I’ve been working on over the past few months. The event therefore had a certain “life passing before my eyes” quality that I think has left me in only a semi-responsive state… ;-P

There’s a seminar at Melbourne Uni all week this week on Badiou’s Being and Event – I had booked myself into this, figuring I would want a break from Hegel and Marx after the conference, and also figuring it would be a chance finally to tackle this work. The lecturer is one of the folks who had been involved in the excellent series on Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition back in July – an event I had used similarly, as a spur to get myself to work through something I had been meaning to read for some time. Both events have been organised under the auspices of the truly fantastic Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy, which runs events like this over the term breaks, and is about to start running an “evening school” during the term as well.

I’m only around a hundred pages into Badiou’s text – planning on reading enough to stay a bit ahead of the lectures, and to finish by the end of the week. And of course, in spite of reading this because I want a break from Marx and Hegel, I’m finding myself thinking about Marx and Hegel as I read. I’ll leave Hegel aside for the moment, but I did want to toss something up on parallels with Marx, mainly because it gives me an excuse to leave a placeholder for myself about something that came up at the conference, and about which I’ll want to write more later.

When I wrote the conference paper, I think I was expecting people to contest the sorts of links I draw between Hegel and Marx – not so much because it’s terribly controversial to claim that Marx is borrowing from Hegel’s concept of “science” in writing Capital, but because of the specific way I extend this claim by also drawing attention to some parallels between Capital and Phenomenology. On the one hand, this extension allows me to make sense of a lot of what’s going on in the first chapter of Capital in particular – and specifically to argue, as I did in the paper,

Shifts in perspective are particularly rapid in the first chapter of Capital, making this chapter a rich source for illustrating Marx’s analytical techniques. The text opens, as I have discussed above, with an “empiricist” perspective that limits itself to material and social phenomena that can be directly perceived by the senses. This empiricist perspective is adequate to introduce the opening category of the commodity, but the text must shift to a different perspective – a “transcendental” one – in order to unfold the categories of value and abstract labour, which are intangible social structures and therefore cannot be directly perceived by the senses. Their existence must therefore be intuited by reason. Finally, the text shifts to a “dialectical” perspective over the course of the derivation of the money form.

On the other hand, this extension also opens up what I would expect to be one of my more controversial claims about how I understand the critical standpoint of Capital to operate:

In Hegel, it is the confrontation with the inverted world that drives consciousness finally to recognise that its object does not reside in some separate substance or world outside itself, but is rather consciousness itself. Consciousness comes to recognise its own implicatedness in its object – comes to see that it has, in fact, been its own object all along. At this point in Hegel’s text, consciousness becomes reflexive – becomes self-consciousness.

Marx traces a similar sort of narrative in his analysis of the genesis of the money form, a narrative that culminates in a series of inversions of the distinctions with which the analysis begins. Significantly, after drawing attention to these inversions, Marx opens the concluding section of the chapter, where he discusses commodity fetishism. Here Marx finally voices explicitly that the forms of thought expressed earlier in the chapter are examples of what he calls fetishised forms of consciousness: forms that are valid for a specific social situation, but which have failed to grasp their own social conditions of possibility, and have therefore naturalised the contingent features of capitalist society.

By breaking into a more explicitly critical voice at this point in the text, Marx hints that, like Hegel, he endorses the position that more adequate forms of consciousness can arise immanently, through the confrontation with the contradictions and “inversions” generated by the reproduction of capital. Marx then structures Capital to draw attention to the ways in which later categories “invert” the conclusions the text had derived from earlier categories. As with Hegel’s argument about the “inverted world”, Marx’s “inversions” are intended, not to suggest that the “inverted” conclusions are “true” and the original conclusions are “false” – this would be to allocate “appearance” and “essence” to separate substances or worlds. Instead, the point is to illustrate that the same social context generates opposing potentials – that the process of the reproduction of capital is contradictory – and therefore that critical reflexivity is generated as an immanent possibility.

I expect this claim to be controversial because many interpretations of Capital see the form of critique expressed in the text to be a kind of unveiling, whereby an illusory dimension of discourse or social practice is penetrated by the critique in order to reveal an underlying reality that provides the standpoint of critique. In my approach, critique does not rely on an underlying reality: it is, so to speak, fetish all the way down. In this reading, however, the fetish is reinterpreted as a distinctive (and complex) structure of social experience that generates conflictual potentials, some of which are more likely to be recognised by social actors than others. I won’t rehash the entire argument here, as the paper covers it in brief, and the thesis will cover it in detail, but the basic claim is that Marx is not criticising the political economists for their failure to penetrate the fetish, but rather for their failure to explore how the fetish is generated in social practice – and, relatedly, what the various potentials of the practices that generate the fetish might be. The aim here is Benjaminian: to make our own history citable in (more of) its moments, and therefore to make political decisions possible based on a fuller sense of the potentials immanently available to us, rather than to conceive of political action as necessarily requiring a step outside of history, in order to criticise our society against normative ideals provided by some socially non-specific truth.

The conference paper necessarily covered this argument in a very condensed way and, because of the focus of the event on Hegel, spent much more time, relatively speaking, talking about Marx’s relationship to Hegel, than it did about how I understand the complex question of the sort of critical standpoint Capital makes available. One consequence of this, I realised during the discussion, is a few people were perhaps a bit too persuaded by my argument about Marx’s close ties to Hegel, and therefore came away with the sense that I am arguing that Capital is essentially an “idealist” work or an analysis of the internal contradictions and tensions within the discourse of political economy. Whether people then liked, or disliked, the implications of this, depended on their personal political and theoretical commitments. Regardless, it wasn’t quite what I was trying to argue.

Marx does organise the text to expose contradictions within political economic discourse, and understanding his relationship to Hegel helps in clarifying why he organises the text the way he does. The tacit metatheory underlying his critique of political economy, however, is more Durkheimian than it is Hegelian. I mean by this that, like Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Marx takes the position that we do not organise our social life in a specific way because we believe certain things or hold certain ideals, but rather we believe certain things or hold certain ideals, because we organise our social life in a specific way. This argument isn’t causal – the claim is not that we engage in certain practices, which then externally cause us to think certain ways: this would involve a dualism I think Marx rejects. The argument also isn’t functional – that we think certain ways because these forms of thought are useful for some social purpose. The argument is rather that practices are intrinsically bound together with tacit dispositions, such that the qualitative characteristics of our practices necessarily implicate the qualitative character of how we experience ourselves, perceive, think, etc. – and explicit theoretical reflection then tends to work, bricoleur-like, with the raw materials generated by our practical experiences. I’m reasonably certain this metatheoretical stance is what Marx has in mind, when he talks about how Hegel has everything “standing on its head” – i.e., has ideas driving practice – while Marx has turned things right side up again. (I’ll leave aside whether this is fair to Hegel, and also my own critique of the way in which Marx then emphasises one particular dimension of social practice – a move that, arguably, implicates his own analysis in some of the things he criticises in writing about the fetish.)

In this context, the analysis of “discourse” provides a window onto collective practices in a very general sense – and the contradictions and tensions within a discourse open onto contradictions and tensions in practice. A great deal of the legwork in Capital therefore consists in leveraging the tensions of political economic discourse, by using those tensions to unearth the lumpy and conflictual character of the sorts of practices that contribute in various ways to the process of the reproduction of capital.

So what does all this have to do with Badiou?

I couldn’t help but be struck by how much Badiou’s argument about being qua being, echoes Marx’s argument about value. (And please note I am only a quarter of the way through the text, and am not trying to make any serious point about Badiou, as I don’t have the basis to understand his argument in full. My interest is more in thinking through an issue in relation to Marx, by means of the different vocabulary set out in Badiou’s text.) I’ve now dog-eared a great many passages that struck me in this way – I’ll just pull out a single longish example for attention here:

Take any situation in particular. It has been said that its structure – the regime of the count-as-one – splits the multiple which is presented there: splits it into consistency (the composition of ones) and inconsistency (the inertia of the domain). However, inconsistency is not actually presented as such since all presentation is under the law of the count. Inconsistency as pure multiple is solely the presupposition that prior to the count the one is not. Yet what is explicit in any situation is rather that the one is. In general, a situation is not such that the thesis ‘the one is not’ can be presented therein. On the contrary, because the law is the count-as-one, nothing is presented in a situation which is not counted: the situation envelops existence with the one. Nothing is presentable in a situation otherwise than under the effect of structure, that is, under the form of the one and its composition in consistent multiplicities. The one is thereby not only the regime of structured presentation but also the regime of the possible of presentation itself. In a non-ontological (thus non-mathematical) situation, the multiple is possible only insofar as it is explicitly ordered by the law according to the one of the count. Inside the situation there is no graspable inconsistency which would be subtracted from the count and thus a-structured. Any situation, seized in its immanence, thus reverses the inaugural axiom of our entire procedure. It states that the one is and that the pure multiplicity – inconsistency – is not. This is entirely natural because an indeterminate situation, not being the presentation of presentation, necessarily identifies being with what is presentable, thus with the possibility of the one.

It is therefore veridical… that, inside what a situation establishes as a form of knowledge, being is being in the possibility of the one. It is Leibniz’s thesis (‘What is not a being is not a being‘) which literally governs the immanence of a situation and its horizon of verity. It is a thesis of the law.

This thesis exposes us to the following difficulty: if, in the immanence of a situation, its inconsistency does not come to light, nevertheless, its count-as-one being an operation itself indicates that the one is a result. Insofar as the one is a result, by necessity ‘something’ of the multiple does not absolutely coincide with the result. To be sure, there is no antecedence of the multiple which would give rise to presentation because the latter is always already-structured such that there is only oneness or consistent multiples. But this ‘there is’ leaves a remainder: the law in which it is deployed is discernible as an operation. And though there is never anything other – in a situation – than the result (everything, in the situation, is counted), what thereby results marks out, before the operation, a must-be-counted. It is the latter that causes the structured presentation to waver toward the phantom of inconsistency.

Of course, it remains certain that this phantom – which, on the basis of the fact that being-one results, subtly unhinges the one from being in the very midst of the situational thesis that only the one is – cannot in any manner be presented itself, because the regime of presentation is consistent multiplicity, the result of the count.

I’m realising as I finish typing this monster that I’m getting very tired, and won’t be able to write a proper argument to flesh out my point. Just a few quick notes then, and perhaps I’ll come back to this issue when I’ve read Badiou properly.

Leaving aside for the moment the context in which Badiou is asserting these sorts of claims, this and similar passages wouldn’t be a terrible way of trying to express what Marx is after with categories like “value” – categories which are dynamic structures that manifest themselves in and through the transformations of the objects of our immediate experience. As structures that manifest only through the transformations of more mundane objects of experience, such categories can never be “presented” in their own right – they possess no separate substance – but are instead “phantoms” that “haunt” the objects of our immediate experience. Viewed synchronically, there is nothing in the objects of immediate experience that would allow such “inconsistencies” – what I tend to call the “counterfactual” dimension of these categories – to be directly perceived or grasped.

Marx, however, views his counterfactual categories as socially specific – and tries to link them back to the practices that generate them. Something like value is generated in collective practice when social actors engage in a vast array of empirical labouring activities, without being able to know in advance which activities will successfully “assert themselves” to become part of “social labour”. The process by which activities succeed or fail in becoming successfully incorporated into “social labour” operates behind the backs of social actors. This process whereby the universe of activities undertaken, is forcibly reduced down to the much smaller subset of activities that get to “count”, is one of the bases for what Marx calls the fetish. Our collective behaviour, Marx argues, is tantamount to treating the products of labour as though they possess a supersensible substance (value) and treating labour as though it participates in a supersensible world (of abstract labour). Value and abstract labour thus become constituted in social practice as supersensible, counterfactual categories, because we behave as though such supersensibile entities exist. Having first simply “practiced” as though such entities exist, we eventually “deduce” their existence. Deduction is required because we are not consciously setting out to create such entities, and because these entities are intangible “structural” elements that can be perceived only through the lawlike deflection of the objects of our immediate sense experience.

Marx’s argument about the fetish suggests that the ontological status of these is particularly difficult for social actors to discern – this is the point of his joke about Dame Quickly in the first chapter of Capital: we don’t know “where to have them”. Confusion over the ontological status of the categories does not reflect a conceptual error: the qualitative characteristics of the categories themselves generate the risk that they will be “read off” onto some separate substance, something that resides behind the flux of our sensible experience of either the material or the (overtly) social world. Another way to come at this same point, from a different direction, is to say that it’s structurally tempting to treat certain categories of our social experience as “negations”, or categories that arise only once we subtract from everything that is specific to what we plausibly perceive as our determinate social experience. Marx wants to reposition these categories as “positivities” – to help us to recognise how they are constituted in some determinate qualitative form, rather than failing to perceive their determinate qualitative character because we are treating such categories as the results of a process of subtraction or abstraction from other sorts of entities.

In other words, according to Marx (and recognising that I’m skipping through this much too quickly), we are “primed” by at least one dimension of our social practice, to find elements of a Badiou-style ontology plausible. It’s important that this point not be made reductively: we are also “primed” by dimensions of our social practice, in Marx’s argument, to be receptive to notions of a material world governed by universal laws – this priming no doubt tells us something about the timing of the historical emergence of a particular style of scientific enquiry, but it would be a category error to jump from this historical insight, to any immediate judgement on the truth or falsehood of particular scientific claims. The same holds for other forms of thought whose emergence might seem to resonate particularly strongly with some element of Marx’s social critique.

Nevertheless, where we can demonstrate (and I don’t claim to have demonstrated in this post – again, these comments are just rapid placeholders before sleep overtakes me) that we might be primed by social practices to experience a form of thought as familiar, we can be conscious that we might find that form of thought persuasive, because it is familiar – as resonating with our existing habits of perception and thought – as being something we “recognise” as salient, without being fully aware of how or why. On another level, particularly when trying to develop critical theories or philosophies with an emancipatory intent, it can be helpful to play claims about socially nonspecific potentials, off against analyses of socially specific ones: Marx’s “structural” categories, for example, are the targets, not the standpoints, of his critique – the things he wants to abolish, not the things in whose name his critique speaks. Categories like value certainly do disrupt the “count” of the situation – they react corrosively back against what is – but this is not an emancipatory disruption, but rather a constitutive one. This doesn’t at all mean that Badiou can’t develop something critical using his own categories – only that the peculiarly dynamic and counterfactual character of the reproduction of capital might also need to be kept in mind, in order to prevent a kind of normative underdetermination that might suggest that any counterfactual category is, by dint of sitting outside presentation, automatically critical. Badiou may well thematise this issue – always a problem with commenting on such a text while only a fragment of the way through… I write as part of a process of thinking out loud, and without the intention of making anything resembling an argument at this stage. 🙂

HSS2008 Paper

I’m both wired and utterly exhausted. I presented today to the Hegel Summer School conference. Prepping for this event has been a bit all-consuming, and I haven’t been able to get my thoughts together for blogging or even responding to comments. I still won’t respond tonight – I just want to get the paper online, as I promised this at the event, but I need some rest before I can get back into the swing of blogging.

This paper was originally meant to bring together some of what I’ve been working on in the thesis, particularly in the second chapter, with some of what I’ve been writing on the blog, particularly in relation to the reading group posts for the Science of Logic and Phenomenology of Spirit. I had no idea, to be honest, that bringing this material together would prove as productive for me as it has – I now have a much clearer idea (I think…) of what I’ve been trying to say about Marx’s relationship to Hegel and also about the textual strategy of the first chapter of Capital. Most surprising and pleasant to me, was also finally figuring out something I’ve been dancing around for a very long time, about how Marx understands the textual strategy of the first volume of Capital, to relate to what I’ve been calling immanent critique. In a sense, writing this paper was almost too useful for me: now I have to go back and rewrite at least one, and possibly two, chapters in the thesis. One step forward, etc…

An event like this is so unusual and rare. Time to unfold a genuinely complex argument. Space to tackle some extremely difficult theoretical material. Incredible scope for discussion – we went, I think, for something close to three hours. Where many conferences have left me longing for the blog, where ideas can be worked out in detail and the discussion can sprawl, this conference is truly special. It was an extraordinary opportunity, and I’m humbled and a bit stunned by the time and attention and ideas and energy that the participants have put into the event.

My head is spinning from the ideas that came forward from discussion – I’m utterly unable to summarise any of it. I had been planning to wait to post the paper until I could perhaps say something about the issues that came up in discussion, but I’m realising that it may take quite a while for all of that to sink in. I’ll put the paper up now, and will most likely be working through the ideas sparked by the discussion in a more embedded way in whatever it is I write over the next while.

I’m conscious of many debts for this paper. The online and in-person participants in the Science of Logic reading group have been of enormous help as I’ve tried to get my head around at least a small slice of this text. Wildly Parenthetical took the time to read over an earlier version of this paper, and to workshop concepts, and generally to force me to be a little bit clearer (and perhaps bolder ;-P). L Magee somehow got drafted into chairing my session, and managed this last-minute appointment exceptionally well. 🙂 A number of people attended to provide moral support (one of my lasting memories from this event will be of my head of department, overhearing someone ask me during a coffee break, “So is your university a major centre for Hegel scholarship?”, and almost choking on his tea…). And others I haven’t named individually provided genuinely formative feedback on draft work.

I’ll place the intro above the fold to give a sense of the general theme, and the rest below, as of course it’s an hour-long talk, and so a bit bulky for the main page…

Fighting for What We Mean

I’m going to be talking today about Hegel and Marx, two thinkers who analyse relational networks of mutually-determining phenomena. This style of theory makes it extremely difficult to say anything, unless you intend to say everything. Marx and Hegel say “everything” in works totalling thousands of pages – in Marx’s case, works that were never actually completed. Today, we have an hour. An hour in which I have tried to say at least something – but have perhaps included a bit more of everything than might have been ideal. What I suggest is that, particularly if you aren’t familiar with the texts I am analysing, you not worry about the details of the argument, but focus instead on the overarching contour. I can review the details if needed during discussion, and I will place the talk online after this event for anyone who wants to work through the arguments more closely.

The title of the event today – “Solidarity or Community: Philosophy and Antidotes to Fragmentation” – frames the problem confronting us in a very specific way. It suggests that:

  1. fragmentation – understood as the breakdown of the social bonds connecting us to one another – is a central theoretical and practical problem for our time – something that requires an “antidote”;
  2. two potential “antidotes” present themselves immediately to us: one, encompassed in the concept of “solidarity” and the other, encompassed in the concept of “community”; and
  3. philosophy – specifically, Hegelian philosophy – may be able to help us understand why social bonds are breaking down, or how we can prevent or correct this breakdown.

The title suggests that something – let’s call it capitalism – is corrosive of social bonds – that it erodes such bonds, and that such an erosion is a bad thing, something that deserves to be the target of critique. Yet capitalism is presented here, not simply as something that produces negative effects, but as a negation – as something that strips away, leaving us to confront a gap or an absence – which then must be filled by some new sort of positive social bond, in order to avoid fragmentation.

The question I want to consider today is what might be missing from this picture: what are we at risk of overlooking, if we thematise capitalism one-sidedly, as a corrosive force that erodes social bonds? Is there any sense in which we can grasp capitalism as constitutive or generative of some particular kind of social bond? If capitalism can be understood as generative in this way, then why is the problem of social fragmentation so striking? These questions, I suggest, carry us into the heart of Marx’s motivation for appropriating Hegel’s work, when he sets out to write Capital.

Hegel is perhaps Marx’s most consistent theoretical reference point, and Marx critically appropriates a number of Hegelian concepts in his work. Today, I want to focus on two concepts that are particularly important in making sense of the textual strategy of Capital: Hegel’s concept of “science”, and the associated methodology Hegel sets out in the Science of Logic; and a complex set of arguments relating to appearance, essence, and inversion, which Hegel makes with different emphases in a number of works – for today’s talk, I will focus on the version of the argument Hegel presents in the early chapters of the Phenomenology of Spirit.

When thinking about how to appropriate Hegel’s work for critical social theory, his concept of science or his arguments relating to appearance and essence are not necessarily the ones that most immediately leap to mind. It is more common to turn to Hegel’s own more direct reflections on civil society, the state, and other recognisably “social” topics, to discuss Hegel’s comments on labour and the master-bondsman relation, or else to explore the complex theme of mutual recognition. These dimensions of Hegel’s work are logical starting points for a social theoretic appropriation, as they seem most directly to touch on questions that we recognise intuitively as “social” – questions relating to intersubjectivity, social relations, or social institutions.

It is therefore particularly striking that Marx’s relies quite heavily on the more abstract, “philosophical” – and, in fact, “idealist” – elements of Hegel’s project, when developing the structure and method of Capital. Today I’ll briefly sketch what I mean by this claim, in order to render more visible the tacit methodology at work in Marx’s text. Focussing particularly on the categories of the commodity and labour power, I then illustrate how recognising Hegel’s influence can help us make sense of elements of Marx’s argument and presentational style that are otherwise easy to overlook. From this foundation, I return to my opening question of whether something might be missed, if we conceptualise capitalism as a negation – as something that corrodes social bonds – without asking at the same time what sort of distinctive social bond capitalism might also generate. Read more of this post

The Contingency of the Law

Nate has been posting some very nice pieces over at what in the hell… recently, on the topic of what Marx means by free labour (and in what sense Marx understands free labour to be central to capitalism), and more recently on the theme of industrial accidents (and on why this theme isn’t more prominent in Capital). Both posts have sparked (er… at least from my somewhat selfish point of view) quite nice discussions that range beyond these immediate topics, and into the metatheoretical question of how Marx understands his categories. I wanted to cross-post one snippet from one of my comments over here (and to apologise to Nate that this might well have been the only snippet in several long comments that might have been useful ;-P – I’ll plead a mild cold and much distraction for the poor signal/noise ratio in my contributions to this discussion – I spend a great deal of time beating around what I’m trying to say, before coming up with this):

My current attempt to make generous sense of the category of wage labour is to say that, on one level, we are talking about a historical precondition – about the way this happened empirically. On another level, however, we aren’t only talking about this, but about a category adequate to enable certain immanent potentials of capitalism to be expressed. There are a number of categories that function this way in Capital – money as universal equivalent, for example, expresses certain tendencies more “perfectly” than other categories. Those other categories, however, continue to exist – empirically, but also in the “ideal” account in Capital – because the “imperfect” categories often continue to be implied in the operation of the “perfect” ones. (Marx doesn’t use this vocabulary – I’m trying, somewhat clumsily, to work out how to express this…) The argument, as I understand it, is that there are structural tendencies that drive toward the discovery and then the realisation of the more “adequate” categories, the categories that enable a more complete or adequate expression of certain structural potentials. So the “ideal” presentation of capitalism argues that the realisation of such categories is socially plausible (Marx might say “necessary”, but I like to gloss this in terms that make more explicit my probabilistic concept of how all this operates… ;-P). The “ideal” presentation of capitalism, however, is a non-linear one: tendencies find expression in one dimension of capitalism, run into impasses, and then, in flowing around those impasses, those same tendencies can drive the introduction or reintroduction of forms that don’t express those tendencies as “perfectly” as they might have been expressed even in the immediate past – and the non-linear cycle begins again.

I think when Marx goes more empirical – when he analyses actual events – it seems reasonably clear that this sort of concept is operating in the background. I don’t think he sees the process as linear, or that less “adequate” categories are understood to be superceded. What he doesn’t think we can shake, globally and in the long run, is the logical “ranking” of the categories – and therefore the intuitiveness with which something like “wage labour” is perceived as more “advanced” than something like “slavery” – even though the form of slavery we’re examining may be every bit as “modern” in its origins as the form of wage labour to which we’re comparing it. So I think there’s a tacit metatheory here about why we perceive certain practices and institutions as historical throwbacks, when they are nothing of the sort: we’re engaging in a form of socially plausible misrecognition, which confuses an internal logic of capitalism, which makes it possible to “rank” categories based on how well they express certain tendencies immanent to capitalism, with a historical development. This misrecognition then makes it more difficult for us to process the ways in which capitalism is itself generative of these forms that we mistakenly perceive as historical holdovers from earlier times.

The main theme I touch on here – that Marx offers a sort of theory of misrecognition, that attempts to account for why certain perfectly “modern” phenomena come to be perceived as “premodern” – is the planned focus of the fifth chapter in my thesis (with the caveat that the thesis structure is very much a fluid entity). Nate nails perfectly why I want to make this kind of argument, in his follow-up comment responding (in part) to what I’ve cross-posted above:

…it seems to me that Marx’s methodological appeals to social averages is relevant here, in that he appeals to systemic tendencies and the like. I’m fine to say there’s a systemic tendency in the logic of the capitalist form of social relations, so to speak… that capitalism on average has a tendency to produce waged labor. I’d even be okay with saying there’s a tendency to encourage free waged labor and to discourage unfree labor. Those are at least in part empirical claims and I’m not qualified to make or to dispute them. Where my objection is to anything that is a serious (ie, not just rhetorical) claim that slavery is a historical throwback – in a sort of evolutionary sense, that we can leave it to the forward progress of history or the logical of capital to eliminate it…

The importance of this kind of argument is underscored by one of Benjamin’s comments, on the intrinsically disempowering effect of conceptions of history (or of contemporary society) that count on some sort of automatic “progress” to achieve desirable political results, absent actual political struggle:

The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

One of the other, somewhat related, themes that runs through this conversation is what Marx means when he talks about tendencies within capitalism. He often uses the vocabulary of “law” to describe these tendencies – a vocabulary that suggests to the contemporary ear that some particular outcome must result, in an exclusive way. I’ve always read this vocabulary, instead, as probabilistic – I think that Marx’s analysis of how various “laws” play out on the ground, makes it clear that he is talking about very abstract structural potentials and constraints, whose realisation in any specific form depends on a variety of local circumstances that cannot be predicted in advance. The vocabulary of “law” captures the sense in which something non-random happens in and around these contingencies, but isn’t intended to assert that the exact same local circumstances would be generated by capitalism in all times and places. I ran across a typical formulation of this use of “law” while looking up something from the chapter on the “General Law of Capitalist Accumulation”:

This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation. Like all other laws it is modified in its working by many circumstances, the analysis of which does not concern us here.

An absolute general law – modified in its working by many circumstances. Law is always understood this way, in my reading, by Marx.

(By the way, Nate, if you scroll a bit upward from the passage quoted, you’ll find one of Marx’s occasional references to industrial accidents – he refers in passing to “the victims of industry, whose number increases with the increase of dangerous machinery, of mines, chemical works, &c., the mutilated, the sickly, the widows”. From memory, there will be other references in the chapter on Machinery and Modern Industry, as well as scattered about in other places…)

Argument in Continental Philosophy

Over at The Ends of Thought, Roman Altshuler has written a nice post with the provocative title Do Continental Philosophers Have Arguments?”. Altshuler notes that the perception that continental philosophers don’t engage in argument is likely arise among people who don’t read much continental philosophy, but asks whether anything about the practice of continental philosophy might render this impression plausible. In analysing this question, he makes a number of nice points about the practice of “embedding”, rather than directly contradicting or attempting to refute, competing positions:

But I think there is another reason why continental arguments often get missed, and this seems to me to reflect a general difference in the way analytic and continental philosophers understand the purpose of argument…

…a debate can often go back and forth indefinitely, and the waning of such a debate or the prominence of a position is often attributable to factors that have little to do with the rational force of particular arguments.

And here I want to suggest that one typical (though not universal) continental approach to arguments arises out of this recognition: arguments are viewed not so much as techniques used to demonstrate an opponent’s flaw, but rather as attempts to make intelligible underlying issues. …

So while an analytic philosopher might take the arguments primarily as something to be defended or refuted, a continental philosopher may be more likely to look at the context of the arguments on both sides and to search for the deeper conceptual problems involved. Often this involves a method of looking for aporias (a method Ricoeur calls “aporetics”)—points at which both sides have been so thoroughly defended that the fruitful response is not to contribute to one side or the other, but instead to take the problem to be for all intents and purposes insoluble, and to seek the reason for this insolubility in the conceptual scheme common to both sides.

The goal of a continental argument, then, is often not to attempt to resolve a philosophical problem directly, but to try to make the problem itself clearer by providing an intelligible picture of why the problem appears so intractable in the first place. This may seem unphilosophical and, really, unsatisfying to those committed to solving the problem; but it involves the recognition that some problems cannot be solved, and they cannot be solved not because the terms of the problem are badly defined, or because a master argument has not yet been found, but because the problem itself arises out of a mistaken schema. One consequence is that this tends to make continental writing less contentious and more conciliatory—another reason that arguments might seem to be lacking. It is conciliatory in the sense that often continental writing proceeds not by attempting to show that a particular view is wrong, but instead by showing that it is inadequate to grasping a deeper problem. But instead of simply rejecting the view, the method often goes on to seek the truth of the position, roughly, what is right about the position in the sense that it can be used to make sense of the underlying issue.

I engage in this sort of “embedding” move myself, and tend to be drawn to arguments that attempt to demonstrate the plausibility or bounded validity of what they are criticising. I suspect, though, that those on the receiving end of such “embedding” critiques don’t experience this sort of move as terribly “conciliatory”: the “embedder” is, after all, gobbling up competing forms of thought, recognising the validity of those forms of thought only in and through convicting them of not adequately grasping their own conditions of possibility… One could argue that a simple rejection or abstract negation is, in a sense, more gentle, as the process of simply dismissing one’s opponent preserves the opposition on a more level agonistic plane…

Of course Altshuler isn’t necessarily denying this, but is instead trying to make sense of the perception that continental philosophers are not directly engaging with competing forms of thought in an argumentative fashion. I thought the piece was a nice, succinct distillation of some elements of what has occasionally been discussed here around the notion of immanent, reflexive critique.

Hegel Summer School Next Week

Just a reminder to local readers interested in the Hegel Summer School, that the event is next week (urk!!). Registration forms are available here, and general information about the event is here.

The format of the event has been tweaked somewhat (the website doesn’t yet reflect the most recent changes). I will now be speaking on Friday afternoon, instead of Saturday morning, and we are adding a panel discussion on Saturday afternoon to allow for more discussion of challenges relating to political organisation and mobilisation. The informal Thursday evening drinks and discussion session will provide a brief introduction to the speakers and the event, and give some time for participants to meet one another in a less structured setting. Lots of time and space for discussion is built into the event itself, with papers running around an hour, then a break for coffee and informal discussion, and then around 90 minutes of discussion for each paper.

If I weren’t so tired, I’d likely be getting very nervous around now. 🙂 I’m looking forward to this, though. My talk will synthesise (and, inevitably, abridge) some of the materials I’ve been posting recently here on Hegel and Marx. I’m planning on discussing the motives and then the methodological implications of Hegel’s concept of a “scientific” philosophical system, exploring why this methodology appeals to Marx – and how he considers himself to have “inverted” it in Capital, and then talking a bit about how all this plays out in a theory of misrecognition that suggests certain specific challenges for transformative social movements. In an hour. Hmmm…. Hopefully those of you who attend will be gentle on me. 🙂 I’m very much looking forward to the extended opportunities for discussion, though – it’s very rare to be able to spend so much time on individual papers, and I enjoy spontaneous exchange far far more than talking at people for an hour… 🙂

Hope to see some of you there.

[Update that the talk has now been posted online here, and the audio of the talk is available here.]

Bits of Books

Two students browsing in the University of Melbourne bookstore:

First student: “You don’t read books, though?”

Second student: “Not necessarily… You know… just… bits of books…”

Conversations on History, Memory, and Agency

A very nice cross-blog discussion on conceptualising agency has been underway for some days now, spiralling out from Sinthome’s original post on Scene and Act (readers from here might be amused at the thesis precis I seem to have decided to write in the comments over there – I appreciate Sinthome’s patience with the rather extended off-the-cuff reflections I’ve posted on my project in the comments at his site). The related post over here led to a nice conversation in the comments – which raises, amongst other topics, the loose coupling of agents with contexts, due both to the porousness of context and the selectivity of agents. Sinthome has now picked up on some of themes in a new post over at Larval Subjects, which has in turn drawn an extended response from Wildly Parenthetical. What I wanted to try to to here was to pick up on some elements of both of these most recent responses – with the caveat that it’s been an exhausting day, and so this may end up being more of a pointer to interesting discussions elsewhere, than a substantive contribution.

Both of the new posts in the discussion express a level of uncertainty over how to think the possibility for agency – understood in this discussion, in terms of the possibility for the introduction of something new and unanticipated into a situation – with the tools provided by the theorists who provide major reference points for each interlocutor – Deleuze, for Sinthome, and Merleau-Ponty, for Wildly.

Sinthome, concerned with questions of individuation, begins by drawing out a tension that arises in Deleuze’s work. On the one hand, Deleuze provides powerful tools for thinking about individuation as a process intrinsically connected to a certain milieu – thus avoiding the perils of abstraction (which Sinthome, following Hegel, understands in terms of severing an entity from the relational network that constitutes that entity). This approach, however, leaves uncertain how agency might be thought, risking a determinism in which an agent is conceptualised as nothing more than an actualisation of potentials of a pre-personal field not of its own making. Such a determinism, however, sits in tension with the evidently critical impetus of Deleuze’s thought – with his avowed criticism of philosophies of identity, and his preference for philosophies of difference. Sinthome wonders whether a performative contradiction or tension might lie between what Deleuze says and what he does – as Sinthome expresses this:

Supposing that for Deleuze it is the intensive differences that compose being that are doing all the work (what Deleuze refers to as intensities, inequalities, or asymmetries in Difference and Repetition), there is a curious contradiction between Deleuze’s account of the nature of being and individuation, and what Deleuze actually does. On the one hand, Deleuze gives us an ontological vision of being as composed of pre-personal, asymmetrical intensive differences resolving themselves in the form of the actual entities we see in the world around us. There is no centralized control here, no plan, no goal, etc. Here we are actualizations of the intensive differences into which we’re thrown and develop and our thoughts are the epiphenomena of these processes (like Freud’s differential unconscious where there is no centralized homunculus controlling thought, but rather just a play of energetic differentials producing thought).

Yet on the other hand, Deleuze, at various points, expresses a preference for difference over recognition and identity, for the nomadic over the sedentary, for the anarchic over the state. That is, for Deleuze, philosophy is guilty of having chosen models of recognition, identity, the sedentary, and the state, and the philosopher of difference is exhorted to choose difference, nomadism, and the anarchic (literally the “without principle”). Yet if we are patients of our thought rather than agents of our thought, how can there be any question of choosing one way or another? If I am a thinker like Kant, wouldn’t I simply be actualized in such a way as to model phenomena in terms of recognition, identity, the sedentary, and the state? Wouldn’t this decision be out of my hands? My point is this: The presence of these judgments and decisions in Deleuze’s thought, at odds as it is without what looks like an ontology that would prohibit these sorts of decisions, indicates that his philosophy is haunted by an agent or agency even if this agent or agency isn’t itself explicitly theorized. The question would be one of rendering such a conception of agency explicit in an ontology that is otherwise so scenic in its orientation.

I should stress that Sinthome is cautious on the specific question of whether Deleuze might square this circle at some point in his work – the object of this post is rather to use this discussion of Deleuze to open the problem of how to think agency within relational philosophy. Sinthome does this by first sketching how a similar problem arises in sociological attempts to correct for abstracted forms of individualism, by drawing attention to conditions not of individual’s choosing, which are then viewed as leading to individual behaviour. Such approaches pose the question of how it becomes possible to think beyond the sociological “scene” in which we are all embedded – and the potential paradox of the sociologist who appears to abstract themselves from the very scene to which they are drawing attention. Sinthome riffs on an expression of Luhmann’s to underscore the point:

As Luhmann liked to say “we cannot see what we cannot see”. And what we see least of all is the place from which we see.

A solution, Sinthome suggests, may require thinking through what he calls the “circumference” of the “scene” – the boundaries of the context through which the agent is individuated. Sinthome draws particular attention here to the temporal boundaries of the field of individuation – to the ways in which our “context” is not a perpetually synchronic, bounded instant, but instead riddled through with strands linking us to other times, due to potentials sedimented in memory, language, and archives that offer avenues for individuation not easily located in a single “context” as conventionally understood. While our receptivity to these potentials is of course also mediated through our individuation in some particular present, the particular cross-connections that our present develops with some specific past are not solely and purely determined by the present. Sinthome seems to point here to something that reminds me of a Benjaminian constellation:

Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history. But no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it were, though events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time.

This line of thought reminds me that I need to develop much more the peculiar way in which I take capitalism to sediment and reproduce particular pasts, while also encouraging particular orientations to history – I mention this here only as a placeholder to myself, and as a supplement, not a corrective, to the suggestions Sinthome makes in his post. In the discussion Sinthome and I were having here, before he pulled his points together into this post, I had also suggested that “circumference” can be thought within a context – particularly when context is not conceptualised as some sort of qualitatively uniform substance or (to take the old-fashioned term still current in some of the foundational sociology I periodically foist on the reading group ;-P) “spirit” of a time, but where context itself is viewed as process and as constellation – and therefore as intrinsically presenting those individuated within it with a multiplicity of forms of individuation, in which different moments of the “same” context can open radically different possibilities, providing experiential exposure to conflictual potentials. I plan to develop these points in greater detail, if I can manage to lay the theoretical groundwork adequately through the work I’m doing on Marx. None of this, however, deflects the claim Sinthome is making: that our experiential reach is not circumscribed by some temporal boundary that cordons off and hermetically seals our own time from others – and that aleatory or, for that matter, conditioned reaches across time can react back in substantive ways on our own historical moment. Sinthome brings these points back to Deleuze in his concluding reflections:

As Deleuze will say, all of my loves are a repetition of that love that was never present. Here there is an amorous attachment, a trace memory, that perpetually interferes with the determinative factors of the successive and simultaneous, guaranteeing that I am never quite in or of my time.

It would seem then that the place to look for something like agency in Deleuze would be in these temporal facts, in his discussions of repetition (especially the second psychoanalytic account of repetition in chapter two of Difference and Repetition), where Deleuze shows how the mnemonic is a condition for the spiritual. Perhaps here, in these amorous attachments and identifications we begin to see something like the possibility of an agency within an immanent field of individuations.

Wildly, though uncomfortable with the vocabulary of “agency”, pursues a parallel set of concerns with reference to the possibility for the development of a subject, and the concept of “sedimentation” in Merleau-Ponty. Focussing on developing terms that grasp an embodied subjectivity, Wildly discusses the ways in which our experiences carve grooves or paths of least resistance into which our future experiences then also tend to be channelled by default. The question for Wildly then becomes how the perception or experience of otherness becomes possible, once “sedimentation” is posited to operate in terms of the metaphor of ever-deepening channels into which new experience falls – if “what I can see is shaped by what I have already seen”. Wildly both notes, and criticises, Butler’s suggestion that the subject can never reproduce perfectly, arguing that Butler’s approach reinforces an individualistic concept of agency that itself requires contestation. Wildly’s real concern, however, is the tacit universalism of the notion of sedimentation itself: the underlying model of uniform modes of embodiment that seems to figure as an abstract negation – as something not itself a positive or contestable form of embodiment, but simply a sort of “shell” or empty form into which positive contents fall. “Sedimentation” functions here as natural – as a fate – and what then varies is only what particular content comes to be sedimented. Is there some way, Wildly asks, to think of this form – of sedimentation itself – as something contestable? In her own words:

The problem with conceptualising of subjectivity as a product of such sedimentation is that it creates little space for movement: if the only way that an experience is permitted to matter (to the embodied subject) is through the filter of what has already occurred, then difference as difference won’t be perceived. It can’t be, for we have no way to see what we have not already seen. The new other that I encounter thus remains comprehensible insofar as he or she is understood as ‘like’ what I have seen before. That which exceeds that graspability doesn’t, on this conception of the embodied subject, even figure for me.

In other words, we wind up with something totalising here, if we trust that the very nature of the body is one that shapes itself through sedimentation.

Wildly suggests that the notion of sedimentation, in spite of its best intentions and its political mobilisation in the service of certain kinds of denaturalisation, might itself naturalise something quite pivotal, covering over the possibility of a more shattering and disruptive experience of otherness – something that might alter the default sedimentary “frame” that otherwise shapes and normalises new experiences in the mould of the old. Wildly holds out the possibility for a more anarchic type of encounter, one that “offers me an elsewise, another way to be… a way of being in the world unlike what has been, and unlike any other…” Something in light of which the tacit positivity of the sedimentary body can be revealed, not as a neutral form into which specific contents are deposited in time, but as itself a contentful structure – not a neutral or natural fate that must befall us, but only something experienced as natural until disrupted by the possibility for another way of being in the world.

Wildly will know that I have a weakness for arguments that reposition forms as contents 😉 I’ll be writing more in the weeks to come on the discussion of “physiological labour” in Capital, which will loop back to these concerns in a very indirect and distant way. Lots of room here for further discussion and elaboration.

The summaries above do justice to neither post – readers should look at the originals. And apologies to Sinthome and Wildly if I haven’t adequately captured what you were each trying to say, and also apologies that I’ve found so little to add – my main reaction to both posts is that I need to take up these issues in work I have underway, and so the impact of these posts on me will likely not be visible until I work the concepts up into more formal writing.