Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: February 2008

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…

Star-Crossed Hegelians

starfieldI’ve been buried with work, and haven’t been keeping up on my Hegel posting, but will get back to the Science of Logic very soon. In the meantime, two celestial-themed Hegel posts from other sites. Tom over at Grundlegung draws attention to a special double issue of the online, open access journal Cosmos and History, on the topic of “Hegel and the Fate of History”.

Adam Roberts over at The Valve shares the following anecdote from Heinrich Heine:

Altogether, Hegel’s conversation was always a kind of monologue, sighed forth by fits and starts in a toneless voice. The baroqueness of his expressions often startled me, and I remember many of them. On beautiful starry-skied evening, we two stood next to each other at a window, and I, a young man of twenty-two who had eaten well and had good coffee, enthused about the stars and called them the abode of the bessed. But the master grumbled to himself: “The stars, hum! hum! the stars are only a gleaming leprosy in the sky.” [Heinrich Heine, Confessions (1854)]

Somehow, this story has me thinking about Tom’s occasional Kantian Gloom Watch series. Perhaps there’s a good reason Tom has found only one entry for his contrasting Hegelian Glee Watch

[Note: image modified from 2001: A Space Odyssey Internet Resource Archive]

Nothing Will Help

A post from new blog The Implex captures my mood today:

A writer is most unsatisfied when writing is done, but also while writing. Between times she is anxious. While writing he mistrusts the easy flow of the pen. A good day can be as deceptive as a bad one. She lives for despair; only then is her self-deception at ease with itself. This is not to say that to be an artist one has to be melancholic – not at all. Once you’ve accepted the unshakable burden of tradition, the poverty of language, the confusion of thought, the provisional nature of every sentence, the long time needed to develop what in the mind takes but an instant, the divide between imagination and work, the misunderstanding with which others, and even you, on-again, off-again, view the finished work, the false starts and falser endings, in short, once the absolutely unlivable conditions of writing become habit – and this almost never happens; only on the doorstep of the madhouse – at this moment you become optimistic, cheery even. There blooms the sense that nothing will help.

One of the things I like best about this blog, is that all of its posts are categorised “Uncategorized”.

Heat to the Fire

Something about today has me thinking of Lucretius, who figures in Marx’s very early work on Epicurean philosophy. Marx describes Lucretius as a bold, shattering, free mind whose poetry calls out to the potential freedom in the minds of others:

As nature in spring lays herself bare and, as though conscious of victory, displays all her charm, whereas in winter she covers up her shame and nakedness with snow and ice, so Lucretius, fresh, keen, poetic master of the world, differs from Plutarch, who covers his paltry ego with the snow and ice of morality. When we see an individual anxiously buttoned-up and clinging into himself, we involuntarily clutch at coat and clasp, make sure that we are still there, as if afraid to lose ourselves. But at the sight of an intrepid acrobat we forget ourselves, feel ourselves raised out of our own skins like universal forces and breathe more fearlessly. Who is it that feels in the more moral and free state of mind -he who has just come out of Plutarch’s classroom, reflecting on how unjust it is that the good should lose with life the fruit of their life, or he who sees eternity fulfilled, hears the bold thundering song of Lucretius

It’s interesting the figures toward which we gravitate – the layers of significance those figures hold for us. Marx’s description, revelling in Lucretius’ skill, courage, and insight, reminded me of how Lucretius has often served as a touchstone figure for Sinthome at Larval Subjects – of the diverse ways in which Sinthome’s writing mobilises and finds inspiration in this figure. In various posts over the past couple of years, Sinthome has discovered in Lucretius a voice of enlightenment, wielding reason and sensory observation against superstition, a founding figure of materialism – one whose vision poses challenges for certain materialisms of a more recent vintage, a thinker who dramatically problematises a new world through his philosophy, and a symbol, in the very story of the transmission and reception of his own work, of how it might be possible to think the complex operation of chance, receptivity, and selection in shaping history.

Some of what fascinates Sinthome in Lucretius, I think, must also have fascinated Marx. Several times in his reflections on Lucretius, Sinthome quotes the following passage from the first book of De Rerum Natura in which Lucretius distinguishes intrinsic properties of things, from accidents. This passage is laden with potential for social critique:

A property is that which not at all
Can be disjoined and severed from a thing
Without a final dissolution; such,
weight to the rocks, heat to the fire, and flow
To the wide waters, touch to corporeal things,
Intangibility to the viewless void.
But state of slavery, personhood, and wealth,
Freedom, and war, and concord, and all else
Which come and go whilst Nature stands the same,
We’re wont, and rightly, to call by-products.

Nature here stands as a critical standpoint against which the contingency of social institutions stands revealed. Pointing to the potentially explosive power of the claim that social institutions are in some sense arbitrary, Sinthome has questioned whether every form of contemporary materialism surpasses this critical standard.

Marx is keen, I think, not to fail this sort of test. Interestingly, of the many elements of Lucretius’ Epicurean philosophy that Marx admires, he seems particularly drawn to what he sees as its premiseless character. (Reading this in Marx’s notebooks tonight, I can’t help but be amused: the time I have spent recently trying to demonstrate that this is a major concern for Marx, even though he expresses it only indirectly – and here, in some of the earliest writings we have from Marx, I find it spelled out explicitly…) Without thinking of it in these terms, I suppose I have suggested in my recent work that Marx wields the premiselessness that he admires, against the distinction to which Sinthome draws attention above – but in the service of preserving and retaining such a distinction by establishing the determinate relationships that bind together what are taken to be intrinsic properties and what are taken to be accidents – at least within the bounds of the overarching accident that is capitalist society.