Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: May 2008

Becoming Theory

I’m still drowning, with no time for substantive posting, but I wanted to put up a pointer to a post over at Larval Subjects. Sinthome picks up on some of the themes from our longstanding conversation around what difference it might make, for understanding the process of social reproduction and the possibility for transformation, when “the social” is reconceptualised as immanently conflictual – in the vocabulary that has sedimented out from this conversation, when the social is seen as a form of assemblage or constellation whose component parts generate divergent possibilities from one another and from the current whole. Sinthome writes:

N.Pepperell once told me that she does not believe assemblage theory is a theory. I got irritated at the time as is my custom when I’m enthusiastic about something, but in this I think she’s right insofar as the concept of assemblage is not yet a theory or an explanation of a particular field of individuation, of a particular individuation or phenomenon, but rather an ontological concept that precedes a theory. For example, Marx’s historical materialism stipulates that there are no essences of the human or society. This is a general ontological claim, not yet a theory. We have not yet proposed a theory until we engage in the arduous work of accounting for the specific regularities governing a particular socio-historical moment. Marx becomes a theory when he explains why the historical moment takes the particular form it does (i.e., when he articulates all the processes and contingencies by which particular subjects were formed, particular social relations came into being, and particular tensions or antagonisms developed) and when he envisions the immanent processes by which these historical moments are undergoing transformation. In short, what is required is not logos but immanent logoi, immanent patterns of (re)production internal to a phenomena, absolute specific to situations and their organization.

I’m also remiss in not pointing to the discussion immediately prior, which began by picking up on some issues related to the cross-blog discussion about “difficult styles”, but (appropriately enough) speciated mid-discussion into a conversation focussed more on how the introduction of new social practices into an existing context could react back on that context itself. I’ll archive here part of my comment from that discussion, just to preserve its juxtaposition to Sinthome’s comments above. I suggested:

In terms of examples (and I’m thinking here of the type of argument being made, rather than whether the substance of the example I’m about to use is itself correct): Marx presents the introduction of a new social practice – the exchange of labour power on the market – as a novelty that was both conditioned by the existing environment (in order for this novel practice to arise, you need a whole set of prior historical developments, such that you have markets and production for markets, a developed social division of labour, certain cultural and political formations, a coercive process of “primitive accumulation”, and many other things, without which the new practice would not have become “socially plausible”). So the emergence of this new practice is “conditioned” by the milieu in which it emerges. The practice itself, however, is presented as something that reacts back on the milieu in which it emerged, differentiating capitalism in fundamental respects from other social forms, even where those social forms contain many of the same components (money, production for exchange, developed divisions of labour, etc.) that remain central to the reproduction of capitalism. In Sinthome’s terms, a sort of social speciation or branching off took place, without this meaning that this process was in any sense an ex nihilo event.

The issue here, again, is not whether the specific example is correct – it can be debated whether Marx is correct about which shift releases the cascade of unintended social consequences that effects a “speciation”, but I would take this to be the sort of argument suggested here.

I’d like to say much more – and I am attempting to say (a very little bit) more in the piece on Lukács, which I’ll toss onto the blog eventually. Unfortunately, I have to submerge again… Readers should take a look at the original posts and discussions at Larval Subjects for the full context.

An Inconvenient Talk

*sigh* A few days ago, I was dragged from my coffee shop by an urgent phone call, begging me to stand in at the last minute for a lecture that needs to be given next week to an advanced undergraduate course in social and political theory, aimed at students currently preparing their honours thesis. The request was presented in terms of the need to have someone discuss the sociology of scientific knowledge – to provide a sort of massive-brush-stroke narrative of Enlightenment degenerating into postwar technocratic myth, the anti-technocratic backlash in critical theory, and then contemporary rapprochements between social theory and science. Although I wince every time I do this sort of “bottled modernity” lecture, I have actually delivered lectures with this particular narrative line in the past, and so the request seemed “do-able” around my extremely packed schedule.

Now, though, I’ve received the course materials and seen how the lecture has been advertised to students, what readings they have been assigned, what their tutorial activities will be. And it turns out that I should have paid more attention to a sort of muttered mention of “you know, global warming sorts of things” when my interlocutor mentioned that the lecture should also include a discussion of rapprochements between social theory and science. As it turns out, as far as the course materials and therefore the students are concerned, this is a lecture on global warming. The students will be watching An Inconvenient Truth after I shut up and send them off to their tutorials. The “point” of the lecture, as far as I can tell, is to talk about the social theory of global warming denialism.

Now, as much as I love lurking the wonderful Real Climate site, I have no particular competence to lecture on the topic of global warming. I have not researched social theoretic interpretations of climate change scepticism. I have no idea what to say. I’ve done some work on parallel forms of imagery in conceptualising the economy and the natural environment over time, but that hardly seems on target for a lecture of this sort. I can talk (possibly endlessly) about capitalism and the compulsive transformation of material nature – on production become a runaway end in itself… But these shreds of competence seem to flutter past the “point” of this lecture…

If you were called on at the last minute to give a lecture on this topic, what sorts of things would you want to say? Any ideas? Anyone? What I’m trying to do is get my head around how to link what I already know, with a narrative structure that might be useful for a lecture of this sort… So any suggestions around which my ideas can begin to crystallise, would be most welcome…