Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Conversations

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.

Conversations on Textual Strategy

I am absolutely buried at the moment, but I thought I would belatedly post a pointer to an energetic discussion still unfolding over at Larval Subjects on the question of the necessity of “difficult writing” in certain kinds of philosophical texts. From the original post:

Hopefully I have enough “cred” to inveigh against “difficult books” (I am, after all, mired in the work of figures such as Deleuze, Lacan, Hegel, etc., who are the worst of the worst), but I have increasingly found myself suspicious of the “difficult work”. On the one hand, I read texts in the sciences that express extremely complex ideas in very basic prose. Somehow I’m just unwilling to concede that what Hegel is trying to talk about is any more difficult or complex than what the biologist, complexity theory, economic social theorist, ecologist, or quantum physicist is attempting to articulate. This leads to my concern. I wonder if terribly dense styles such as we find in figures like Deleuze, Lacan, Hegel, Derrida, etc., etc., etc., aren’t a form of intellectual terrorism. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not referring to the quality of their concepts or arguments. What I am referring to is a general writing strategy that demands so much work on the part of the reader in the art of interpretation, that by the time you’ve managed to make heads or tails of what Lacan is arguing or Hegel is seeking to articulate or Deleuze is seeking to theorize, you have so much invested that you simply cannot think critically about that figure.

The rest of the post, and then the extensive discussion that follows, open interesting questions around the ways in which particular kinds of writing cultivate, or fail to cultivate, particular reading experiences and affective attachments to authors. Adam has also weighed in at An und für sich with a gloss on the original post:

I have some reservations about the recent Larval Subjects post about “difficult” books, but I think that, in part, it points toward a real phenomenon — one that I call “academic Stockholm Syndrome.” We’ve all seen it before: an academic invests great energy and undergoes profound suffering in the attempt to grasp a particularly difficult thinker and, upon succeeding, spends the rest of his or her career thoroughly identified with that thinker.

“Academic Stockholm Syndrome” sounds like it might not be a bad phrase to pick out a structural risk of a number of dimensions of academic training…

I’ve posted briefly in the discussion at Larval Subjects, before other commitments overwhelmed my blogging time. I wanted at least to put up a pointer for those who haven’t already seen the discussion…

Articulating Positions (Updated)

photo of the moments of a work process in motionIn the throes of writing over the weekend, but I wanted to put up a quick pointer to a post from Carl at Dead Voles, who is reflecting on the conversation Daniel and I had here, over the meaning of some of the terms I used when trying to contrast Lukács and Marx. I’ve been thinking back over this discussion myself – not least because the discussion connects up with a more general frustration I often feel about my own work with Marx, which often leaves me feeling a bit helpless to say anything, until I’ve outlined a good chunk of everything. I’m conscious that the nature of this kind of theory asks quite a lot from readers’ patience, I struggle a great deal over how to minimise this problem when I write, and I’m always somewhat sympathetic to others’ frustrations over why I can’t say what I mean more concisely. In any event, Carl’s post manages to transpose what I often experience as a personal frustration, onto the more general terrain of the difficulties of communication across two broad approaches to philosophy:

The conversation between N. Pepperell and Daniel strikes me as a classic sort of contrast between two very different ways of thinking about things, which I’ve tried to capture in my title for this post by hijacking Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as a rough analogy. Daniel is an excellent philosopher, and he is oriented toward position. N. Pepperell is also a outstanding philosopher, oriented toward movement. The uncertainty principle tells us that we can know either position or movement, but not both.

This is a lovely framing for Carl’s analysis, which I’m almost tempted to quote here in full – instead, I’ll point readers to the original.

Carl’s observations reminded me of another recent discussion of the issue of communicating across broad approaches to philosophy – the conversation sparked by Roman Altshuler’s Do Continental Philosophers Have Arguments?, to which I responded in this post. The focus wasn’t quite the same (I was concentrating on the issue of “embedding”, rather than “refutation”, as a form of critique), but there are still interesting points of contact between the two sets of reflections.

Just a quick update that Daniel has responded over at Dead Voles, clarifying that, while I might have been worried about taxing his patience with my roundabout way of backing into his questions, this was the sort of interaction he had been seeking out:

As a good Wittgensteinian/Hegelian, I’m not inclined to view my remarks this way. As I was careful to say repeatedly, I’ve not read much Marx. I find him hard to read. So, my questions were all asked from, as it were, a very high altitude (or a great distance away, as through a telescope) — they were meant to help me get Pepperell’s/Marx’s project better in view. And I think they more or less served their purpose; they got Pepperell to talk about the sorts of things I’d wanted to hear her talk about in this context (mainly, denying that Marx/Pepperell are trying to carry projects of various sorts that I think are DOA, but which I’d suspected Marx/Pepperell were still trying to make work). Pepperell kept “running criss-cross over the countryside” to make clear what she/Marx was up to, and this was what I was wanting to be done. Rereading my comments, I can see that I wasn’t as clear about this as I’d intended to be: I was self-consciously “derailing” the thread, asking questions that a remark in the post had brought to my mind, but which weren’t questions about the post per se. My apologies for not making this clearer, Pepperell. I’ve been quite happy with how our little back-and-forth has gone.

Daniel’s full response outlines a nice argument on the need to understand a concept by seeing how the concept is put to use – I recommend folks visit the original to see this argument in full, but I can’t resist reproducing the final bit:

To generalize, you can’t have a proper view of any part of anything until you have the whole affair in proper view. But there’s no need for this to cause anxiety; it’s just good ol’ hermeneutics. False, partial, abstract views need not be merely false, merely partial, merely abstract; they can just as well be on the way to understanding what’s what.

I’ve frontpaged Daniel’s blog here before, but for those who don’t yet know it, you can find his writings over at SOH-Dan.

Now I really must ground myself until I have my paper written… 😉

[Note: photo from Andy Bennet, Barry Shank, Jason Toynbee (red.): The Popular Music Studies Reader (Routledge, London 2006), s. s. 231-238, via Excerpter]

Marx of the Day

I feel like I ought to have had this quote handy a few weeks ago, when I was writing about Derrida’s selective edits to Capital. In any event, this quotation hits on some of the themes in the various conversations that have been underway in recent weeks with Praxis on the relationship between philosophy and other forms of practice in Marx’s work:

The same spirit that constructs railways with the hands of workers, constructs philosophical systems in the brains of philosophers. Philosophy does not exist outside the world, any more than the brain exists outside man because it is not situated in the stomach. But philosophy, of course, exists in the world through the brain before it stands with its feet on the ground, whereas many other spheres of human activity have long had their feet rooted in the ground and pluck with their hands the fruits of the world before they have any inkling that the “head” also belongs to this world, or that this world is the world of the head. Rheinische Zeitung No. 195, July 14, 1842, Supplement

This passage is from a quite early piece that expresses a number of views not carried over in this form into later works. One element of the quote, however, reminds me of a number of later formulations – specifically, the distinctive double movement through which Marx criticises philosophy, while also rejecting its abstract negation: the “head” and the “hand” are part of the same world – problems arise when philosophy forgets its intrinsic connection to other forms of practice, but also when other forms of practice fail to grasp their own implicit conceptual dimensions… No huge substantive point to be made here – certainly not tonight. Just archiving the quote, in part to remind myself to talk about things like this, if I ever find time to develop properly the argument I began to sketch in relation to Specters


Hamlet's FatherI’ve just finished reading Specters of Marx, and am fighting to get a particularly stupid grin off my face. I had read this work a long time ago, in another life entirely, and what struck me then – and therefore remained in memory – bears little relation to what strikes me now. I have been promising a number of people that I would at some point re-read and comment on the work here – tonight’s post will at best be a very partial gesture at this promise. At the moment, I am simply too gleeful to write anything sensible on the text: I am finding myself – quite literally – laughing in enjoyment of the parallel – beautiful and perplexing – that Derrida sketches between himself, criticising Fukuyama, and Marx, criticising Stirner. What a delightful, ironic self-critique and, of course, critique of Marx. I’ll need to leave this – and, with it, the overwhelming bulk of the text – completely aside, until some point when I am feeling a bit less captivated by it…

I do want to archive a couple of issues here for later, more adequate development. First, as will probably be clear from the discussion I’ve already written here on “supersensible” categories like “value”, I like the use of metaphors related to the spectral, in trying to capture what’s unfolding in Capital – the issue of what I’ve been calling “supersensible” categories, what Derrida tends to refer to as the sensuous non-sensuous, is, I think, perhaps the most central dimension to the argument in Capital. And the metaphor of spectrality, as Derrida deploys it here – to capture the dual sense of something invisible/intangible/supersensible and something embodied or incarnated – is a particularly comprehensive metaphor for grasping the strange social characteristics of the sorts of entities Marx is trying to pick out, through categories like “value”, “abstract labour”, and “capital”. Whether Derrida quite grasps the practice theoretic dimension of the argument, I’m uncertain, but the metaphorisation is difficult to surpass.

Second, Derrida makes a very nice distinction that expresses something that has been nagging me in my own writing – a distinction that I will likely steal, although I don’t believe Derrida wields it in quite the way I likely will. Derrida spends quite a lot of time making a case that Marx distinguishes between spirit and spectre, or good and bad instantiations of spectrality. For Derrida, this argument is bound together with a claim that Marx shares with the people Marx criticises, a common desire to banish spectres – a fear of the spectral. Again, I would need to spend much more time with Derrida’s text to decide whether I agree with this critique. In a short-term and selfish sense, what I take from the distinction Derrida draws, is the realisation that I need to express much more clearly two dimensions of Marx’s “spectral” that emerge in the course of my own argument. Capital involves a complex critique of the empirically sensible – capitalism figures as a haunted context, in which empirically sensible entities are incarnations of supersensible relations. The supersensible dimension of capitalism figures in Capital both as the object of critique (the social practices that constitute supersensible social entities like “value” need to be overcome, in order to transcend capitalism), and as part of the standpoint of critique (the potential to “carve up” existing social practices, ideals, and institutions in different ways – the latent structure of alternative organisations of social life, necessarily reproduced with the reproduction of capitalism – provides an immanent standpoint from which the reproduction of capital can be recognised as a form of domination). Derrida’s argument about Marx’s attempt to distinguish spectres and spirits intersects in complex ways with this sort of claim – for present purposes, I am simply flagging for myself that Derrida’s argument reminds me that I need to be clearer in my own writing, about the complex ways in which Marx’s critique of empirical “givens” runs through his conception of both the target and the standpoint of his critique.

One brief critical comment, which I will hopefully have time to develop more adequately in the future: Derrida seems to take Marx as offering a critique from the standpoint of use value, and therefore takes exchange value as the target of the critique – certainly not an uncommon reading, and Derrida’s version is vastly more sophisticated than most. My argument has been to take more seriously that the “elementary form” is actually the commodity – not some part of the commodity – and then to tug on this thread, to uncover within Marx’s argument an analysis of a tripartite social structure in which an unintended side effect of our collective practice is the generation of a dynamic of historical transformation that is effected via the transformation of material nature and overtly social institutions, in such a way as to enact or confer on specific aspects of our practical experience, those qualitative attributes that we intuitively experience as “material” or “social”. This is a difficult point to express – for present purposes, suffice to say the argument does not use the concept of a “material world” or “use value” as an “unexplained explainer” for other phenomena, but rather attempts to account for the category of “materiality” and “sociality” (and, for that matter, “historicity” and a number of other pivotal categories) in their distinctive capitalist forms.

I suspect that a great deal of Derrida’s critique here hinges on Derrida’s conviction that Marx is too “spooked” to allow both “content” and “form” to float free, untethered to some ontological ground – too foundationalist to maintain that critique has no “standpoint” outside what is criticised. I read Marx somewhat differently, of course – as an immanent critical theorist, and so as someone not seeking an external ground, but still as someone who tries to answer the question of why we find it so intuitive, to think that the “material” world should be able to provide such a ground, to perceive the determinate qualitative characteristics we most readily ascribe to materiality, as simple negations – as what is left behind, once everything anthropologically specific has been stripped away. Marx also, of course, uses the categories he analyses – an immanent critique must – and so those dimensions of our practical experience that we enact as “material” realities carry a critical force in his argument. So do those dimensions of our practical experience that we enact as (overtly) social. And so do those dimensions that we enact as “spectral” – that are not subject to immediate empirical verification, but whose existence can be deduced through watching how empirically-observable realities unfold over time. But I’m being very abbreviated, and possibly quite unfair to Derrida’s concerns – I’ll have to take this up again, at an earlier hour, when I can do better justice to the text…

The Matter with Form

Apologies for the recent silence on the blog – I’ve been preoccupied with offline things, and blogging will unfortunately remain slow for a bit. I did want to point to a very nice recent post over at Larval Subjects, on “Social Multiplicities and Agency”. This post continues Sinthome’s recent reflections on the problem of how to thematise agency, asking whether the starting assumptions of much social and political theory – assumptions manifest, in particular, in a form/matter dichotomy – drive theory to oscillate between antinomic poles of abstract structure and agency:

At the heart of what I will call the “Althusserian model”, is the old Aristotlean conception of individuation based on the distinction between form and matter. While Althusser’s social structures are historical in the sense that they come to be and pass away and are thus unlike Aristotle’s forms which are eternal and unchanging, social structure is nonetheless conceived as forms imposed on passive matters, giving these passive matters their particular form or structure. The passive matters in question, of course, are human individuals. I am formed by social structures tout court and without remainder. In response to this conception– and I realize that I am unfairly simplifying matters –we should ask if this is an accurate conception of either agency or the social. Does not Althusser and other structuralist inspired Marxists severely simplify both social dynamics and the social itself? When Badiou speaks of the “state of the situation” “counting-multiplicities as one”, has he not severely simplified how the social is in fact organized, creating the illusion that there’s a monolithic structure at work in social formations? Do not Lacanians and Zizekians severely simplify the social by reading all social phenomena through the lens of the symbolic and formations of sovereignity (Lacan’s masculine sexuation)? Perhaps, in these simplifications, we create the very problems we’re trying to solve and end up tilting against monsters of our own creation.

Sinthome reaches for new metaphors for thinking the social, and finds productive resonance with certain themes in evolutionary theory, which provide tools for thinking, not the reduction of the social to the natural, but rather a more complex and multilayered conception of the social:

To draw the parallel to Althusser and similarly minded theorists– emphasizing once again that I am not seeking to apply natural selection to social formations, but to think the organization and levels of social formations –where the Althusserian form/matter social model postulates two thing (social structure and individuals), where one thing, the social formation, hierarchically imposes form on another (individuals), Gould’s model envisions a number of different levels in which distinct processes take place. As Gould goes on to say, “…[A]djacent levels my interact in the full range of conceivable ways– in synergy, orthogonally, or in opposition” (73). That is, among the different levels processes taking place can reinforce one another, they can be independent of one another, or they can be in conflict or opposition with one another. Were such a nuanced and multi-leveled conception of the biological carried over into social theory, we would no longer engage in endless hand-wringing as to whether or not agency is possible, nor would we need to postulate theoretical monsters like the Lacanian subject or subjects of truth-procedures. If such moves would no longer be necessary, then this is because we would no longer postulate hierarchical and hegemonic relations among the various strata or levels of social formations. Instead, we would engage in an analysis of these various levels and strata, examining the relations of feedback (positive and negative) that function within them, their relations of synergy, orthogonality, and antagonism, and the various potentials that inhabit these relations. Here we would need to look at the variety of different social formations from individuals, to small associations like groups (the blog collective for instance), to larger groupings and institutions, to global interrelations, treating none of these as hegemonizing all the others, but instead discerning their varying temporalities, organizations, inter-relations, points of antagonism, and so on. This, I think, is far closer to Marx’s own vision– or at least the spirit of his analyses in texts like Grundrisse and Capital.

I agree with this characterisation of Marx’s work – my discussion in the recent HSS paper of how Marx uses the concept of “inversion”, gestures at how I would begin to develop this position. I hope to be able to spend much more time on how this kind of analysis plays out concretely in Capital, in the coming months.

Sinthome’s post also resonates with the recent discussion of Diane Elson’s work (here and here), in which I was exploring Elson’s take on the concept of “determination” in Marx’s work. Much as Sinthome mines concepts used to think evolution, Elson deploys metaphors from chemistry to try to move beyond thinking of structure as something that subsists separately to, and exists in an external causal relationship with, what is structured.

All of these discussions remind me again of one of my favourite characterisations of Marx’s work, from Paul Lafargue’s Reminiscences of Marx:

He saw not only the surface, but what lay beneath it. He examined all the constituent parts in their mutual action and reaction; he isolated each of those parts and traced the history of its development. Then he went on from the thing to its surroundings and observed the reaction of one upon the other. He traced the origin of the object, the changes, evolutions and revolutions it went through, and proceeded finally to its remotest effects. He did not see a thing singly, in itself and for itself, separate from its surroundings: he saw a highly complicated world in continual motion.

His intention was to disclose the whole of that world in its manifold and continually varying action and reaction.

Compare with Sinthome’s lovely description of:

capitalism as a heterogeneous multiplicity with a variety of different levels, often at odds with itself, spinning off in a variety of different directions, calling for nuanced and local analyses and strategies

Apologies for the associative character of this post – systematicity eludes me at the moment… 😉 Much more on these themes in Sinthome’s original post.

Anticipating Hegel

I’m coming down with a cold – and working on Lukács – and one or the other of these things is making it very difficult for me to write anything intelligible to anyone else. I did want to mention, for anyone who hasn’t clicked through in a while, that Tom Bunyard from Monagyric and I have continued our discussion on Hegel in the comments here, gradually working out a common vocabulary so that we can figure out where, if anywhere, we might disagree on Hegel’s work. Tom has the final word for the next few days at least, but I hope to pick up the threads from that discussion as soon as I’m feeling a bit better and have gotten through some of the work that pays the bills (or, in this case, pays for conferences…). It strikes me, though, that this conversation might be particularly interesting for those who have been following the reading group, as the discussion revolves around the method and intention of the Logic, with Tom approaching things from a reading of the Encyclopedia Logic and my approaching from a (fairly tentative) reading of Science of Logic, and with much of the discussion revolving around the sorts of metatheoretical themes that Hegel raises in his prefaces and introductions “by way of anticipation”, before he dives down into his more rigorous formal presentation (which, among other things, is much harder to read).

Over at Grundlegung, Tom (not Bunyard!) has a fantastic post up on “Hegel and the Form of Law”, which also takes inspiration from Hegel’s prefaces, and then explores some of the threads connecting Philosophy of Right with the unpublished early work Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate. Tom argues for a continuity underlying the apparent differences separating these works (somehow this seems oddly appropriate, as an argument to make about Hegel – that his work contains its own immanent order, constituted amidst the flux of its own transformation…). In his words:

I take it to be a key feature of Hegel’s mature views that freedom (secured by a relation to law) requires two central components: that certain objective conditions obtain and that certain subjective conditions obtain. It is in light of this two-fold approach that I suggest that we can find a perspective from which the apparent tension between Hegel’s early and late conceptions of lawfulness can be resolved. In the early Hegel, the pressures shaping his reaction to Kantianism mean that the emphasis is laid upon these subjective conditions—namely, our orientation towards our responsibilities, how we think, feel and enact them. In the later Hegel, his more conservative tone (whether genuine or feigned to avoid the real threat of censure) leads to an emphasis upon the necessity of our duties as citizens and ethical beings, as well as the broad shape of the objective social structures needed to realise our freedom, and which Hegel thought that progressive modern states were approaching.

Nevertheless, I think we can see both early and late Hegel as bringing together substantially similar subjective and objective conditions, taken as encompassing our own comportments and wider societal structures understood via an analysis of the concepts of right, in his diagnoses of modern life. Both share the idea that the form of law, of universal principles, can present a threat to liberty. This is so whether the danger is agents becoming self-alienated through enslavement to laws they legislate to themselves, or through the all-too-familiar alienation engendered by the impersonal legal-bureaucratic sphere that underlies the institutions of modern public life. But it seems to me that neither of Hegel’s positions represents a rejection of law which would seek to replace the law with something else (e.g. desire, well-being or community).

For the early Hegel, the solution is an ethics that attempts to ameliorate the imperative form of law which brought an oppressive element with it. As for St. Paul though, whose influence I see throughout that book, ‘love fulfils the law’, rather than replaces it. (I am not sure how well this fits with the picture of Paul and the law presented by Adam here.) I have taken up the suggestion that such an ethics is partially illuminated by reference to the ‘holy will’; and if it is right to say that God is love, then a will infused by love may merit description as such a holy will. But again, there is an important sense in which law remains in place regardless; the universal demands of politics and ethics have normative force whether or not we can escape the alienating effects of the law-form.

In the mature Hegel, the insistence on the absolute injunctions of the law are easier to see. But this remains coupled with an analysis of the necessary response to laws if they are to set us free rather than dominate us. We find Hegel saying of laws, “they are not something alien to the subject. On the contrary, the subject bears spiritual witness to them as to its own essence.” Here, I suggest both subjective and objective aspects are in play. To overcome alienation from laws will require us to understand them in a way that shows their inner rationality, so that we can come into a ‘homely’ affective and cognitive relation to them. The flip-side of that is ensuring that they, and the institutions and practices that give body to them, actually be rational such that we can express our freedom through them.

Much more in the fully developed argument…

The Production of Labour

I keep meaning to put up a pointer to Praxis, which is always discussing interesting topics at the intersection of economics and deconstruction. 🙂 The posts over there are consistently worth the read, but I wanted to post a specific pointer today to a nice post up on Keynes, written partially in dialogue to some of the things I’ve put up over here on Marx’s “labour theory of value”. A brief selection:

The innovation of Keynesianism was to reverse the terms in which neo-classical economics had understood the labour-production relation. Neoclassical economics sees labour as the means to the end of production. Keynes’s general theory sees production as a means to the end of labour. Faced with the great depression, and massive unemployment, Keynes proposed deficit-financed government expenditure as a means to ‘produce’ employment. The actual commodities labour produced were incidental – as Keynes vividly illustrates with his great example of burying bank-notes down coal mines, and then digging them up again. Keynesianism – ‘rescuing’ capitalism from itself, and from the looming threat of socialism – can be seen as bringing into the open something that was implicit in earlier mainstream economic theorising: the extent to which economic activity works to produce not commodities, but wage-labour. And – as the social unrest that the great depression brought to the surface suggests – the production of employment is essential if capitalist society is to survive. This is, of course, because people need food to eat. But it’s also because the social system of wage labour serves as an incredibly potent mechanism of discipline and control. When the Keynesian revolution brought ‘full’ employment explicitly to the forefront of policy-making, capitalism, one might say, showed its hand.

I unfortunately have no time today to comment adequately, but at least wanted to put up a pointer to the post, which is worth a read in full.

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…)

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.