Rough Theory

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Category Archives: Critique

Social Metaphysics and Artificial Ontologies

It’s the first week of the term here, my department was moved just last week into a new building, and so I’m working out of boxes there and elsewhere. All of this adds up to very little time online – with most of the time I do have, caught up in administrative issues relating to the courses I’m teaching…

So once again I’d like to point to discussions elsewhere – Benjamin Noys writes on the metaphysics of labour, the problem of agency, and how to conceptualise critique without a “positive” standpoint. Reid Kane from Planomenology responds with a different take on how to conceptualise agency without a “positive” standpoint. I’ve made some brief contributions to both discussions – unfortunately far less substantive than I would like. But the original posts are far more substantive than my drive-by interventions, and so I wanted to point readers to the ongoing conversation.

Fragment on Crisis, Contradiction and Critique (Updated)

Once again, very very tangentially related to discussions of the current crisis. And deeply underdeveloped.

My contention is that Marx understands the “standpoint” of his critique to be potentials that could be released by a reconfiguration of the “materials” that we have made available to ourselves in constituting a particular aspect of our present form of collective life. It is not incidental to his critique that he understands it to be possible to grasp core aspects of the present form of collective life in terms of contradictory social forms, nor is it incidental that he understands the present form of collective life to be crisis-prone. Neither contradiction nor crisis per se, however, directly provides Marx with a standpoint of critique. Instead, contradiction and crisis tendencies are presented, in his analysis, as distinctive qualitative characteristics of the process by which capital is reproduced.

Marx makes the point that contradictions and crises are characteristic of the reproduction of capital, rather than phenomena that by themselves point beyond capital, in various places. I’ll archive two quotations on the subject here – from Marx’s discussion of the means of circulation in chapter 3. First on contradiction:

We saw in a former chapter that the exchange of commodities implies contradictory and mutually exclusive conditions. The further development of the commodity does not abolish these contradictions, but rather provides the form within which they have room to move. This is, in general, the way in which real contradictions are resolved. For instance, it is a contradiction to depict one body as constantly falling towards another and at the same time constantly flying away from it. The ellipse is a form of motion within which this contradiction is both realized and resolved. (198)

Then on crisis (and the relation between the possibility for crisis, and the contradictory character of the form, is particularly clear in this quotation):

Circulation bursts through all the temporal, spatial and personal barriers imposed by the direct exchange of products, and it does this by splitting up the direct identity present in this case between the exchange of one’s own product and the acquisition of someone else’s into the two antithetical segments of sale and purchase. To say that these mutually independent and antithetical processes form an internal unity is to say also that their internal unity moves forward through external antitheses. These two processes lack internal independence because they complement each other. Hence, if the assertion of their external independence proceeds to a certain critical point, their unity violently makes itself felt by producing – a crisis. There is an antithesis, immanent in the commodity, between use-value and value, between private labour which must simultaneously manifest itself as directly social labour, and a particular concrete kind of labour which simultaneously counts as merely abstract universal labour, between the conversion of things into persons and the conversion of persons into things; the antithetical phases of the metamorphosis of the commodity are the developed forms of motion of this immanent contradiction. These forms therefore imply the possibility of crises, though no more than the possibility. (209)

Crisis figures here as the violent assertion of the underlying unity of antithetical moments of a social relation. Crisis is implied by the qualitative characteristics of that relation itself. In and of itself, neither the contradictory character of the relation, nor the crisis tendencies through which that contradictory character sometimes manifests itself, point beyond this relation.

This point is separate from the question, now being discussed at a few other blogs, of whether a historical period characterised by crisis is ripe for the development of a movement oriented to emancipatory social change. My personal opinion is that this latter question cannot productively be discussed abstractly, because I don’t see how the answer is amenable to generic theoretical determinations: theoretical analysis can cast light on how a particular kind of crisis could represent, not a breakdown of a social system, but rather a distinctive mode of social reproduction for a peculiar form of collective life; this is a far less complex question than whether some particular historical juncture might provide a fertile ground for the right kind of political struggle.

Updated to add: Reid Kotlas from Planomenology has a nice post up, discussing the cross-blog conversation on crisis, contradiction, and possibilities for transformative political practice. Among other things, the post picks up on elements of the comment above, linking these reflections to some of the concepts I’ve outlined earlier. A quick excerpt:

What would Bartleby politics look like for us, here on the ground level of the economy? Nicole at Rough Theory weighs in on the debate concerning crisis and change, and her response is quite instructive for our problem. She reminds us that the crisis and contradictions generated by capitalism are, for Marx, not necessarily elements of its collapse or overcoming, but rather, only part of the reproduction of capital. The question of emancipatory change, which for her is bound to the standpoint of critique, the genesis of a position capable of really breaking with the logic of capital, cannot be posed abstractly; it is not a question of ‘is this the right time?’ or ‘what kind of conditions does it require?’. It is a practical question of bringing about such positions through the reconfiguration of the ‘materials’ of social being – the ‘social but non-intersubjective element’ that she has previously discussed, which I would not hesitate to identify with the Symbolic order itself, or rather, the way subjects are bound up in it through organizations of jouissance. By intervening directly in the organization of collective praxis, which is to say, arrangements of enunciation and production, we can engender such a critical standpoint.

Or maybe I can put this another way. It is not that we must figure out some more radical form of organization, so as to bring about a break with capitalism. The question is how to organize collectively in line with a break that is already structurally presupposed in capitalism (the proletariat position), but that is at the same time rejected from assumption or possession, that is dis-inherited or foreclosed. It is not a question of bringing about a critical standpoint, but of enacting the necessary exclusion of its possibility, through the circulation of praxicals (indices of collective praxes, constellations of discursive and productive arrangements) that do not point toward capital as a pure possession of productivity, as the fullness of the yield of production. This latter notion is probably quite enigmatic at the moment, but it is what I am attempting to develop in my thesis (which is complete and will be posted here soon), and in my preliminary formulations of a practical model of schizoanalysis, which is, for me, a collective reorganization of the social/non-intersubjective materials of symbolic structures and relations of production.

Keep an eye on Planomenology, then, to see how these points are elaborated and developed. (Apologies for lack of a more detailed comment on these points – buried away working at the moment, but will hopefully resurface again soon.)

Impure Inheritances

Below the fold is something like the text delivered on Friday afternoon to the Derrida Today conference. This is a jointly-authored piece, delivered by NP, co-written with the appropriately recently-deceased, and therefore undeconstructibly spectral, Praxis Blog. Those who have been following along in the blog discussion leading up to this talk will realise that what is reproduced below the fold is half the argument: the talk covers our working interpretation of why Derrida omits the “hand” when he quotes the passage in which Marx christens the commodity fetish – and explores what this omission implies for how Derrida understands Marx and the possibility of inheriting Marx today. Along the way, we manage to talk in a somewhat rambling fashion, about a rather sweeping range of other things – but somehow in all of this, we never quite stumble across the second half of our own argument, which will attempt to outline a different sort of inheritance of Marx through a reinterpretation of the argument about commodity fetishism. The fetish, therefore, continues to haunt us – imminent, but not yet presenced, below – and yet not below – the fold… Read more of this post

The Reality of Abstraction

I’ve been glancing through some of the secondary literature on Derrida’s Specters of Marx, trying to piece together an abstract. I paused over the following comment, from Jameson’s “Marx’s Purloined Letter”, in Ghostly Demarcations (2008), p. 36:

As for materialism, it ought to be the place in which theory, deconstruction and Marxism meet: a privileged place for theory, insofar as the latter emerges from a conviction as to the ‘materiality’ of language; for deconstruction insofar as its vocation has something to do with the destruction of metaphysics; for Marxism (‘historical materialism’) insofar as the latter’s critique of Hegel turned on the hypostasis of ideal qualities and the need to replace such invisible abstractions by a concrete (that included production and economics). It is not an accident that these are all negative ways of evoking materialism.

For present purposes, I’m not concerned with whether Jameson fully endorses the position set out in this excerpt – what interests me is that this presentation captures one of the common ways of attempting to make sense of what Marx means, when he talks about “standing Hegel on his feet”. In this view, Hegel’s problem is that he engages in “invisible abstractions”: a proper critical approach, by contrast, requires that such abstractions be replaced with “concrete” entities that are purportedly more “real”.

As a placeholder, which I won’t develop adequately here: this is not how I read Marx’s critique of Hegel. Marx is not attempting to reject abstractions – still less to replace them with something concrete, as though the abstractions are mere illusions which can be wished away. Marx is, instead, trying to grasp the ways in which abstractions are generated in practice – in a situation in which those abstractions possess what Marx will often in the Grundrisse refer to as “practical truth”. Hegel’s abstractions become, for Marx, social realities – they aren’t tangible, they can’t be seen immediately through empirical experience, but nevertheless they do exist – and they “really” exist abstractly – if only as moments of a very specific, and potentially transient and transformable, form of social life. Marx wants to grasp these abstractions: their critique consists in the demonstration of how they are produced. The point of critique is not to debunk or to dismiss abstractions as “untrue”, but instead to explore the presuppositions or conditions of possibility for a particular sort of bounded truth – of truth for us – possibly of truth we want to abolish – but truth (for the moment) nevertheless.

The simple dismissal of abstractions, or the unmediated reduction of the abstract down to the concrete – what Hegel might call an “abstract negation” – is insufficient for Marx: only by seeking out the practical genesis of what is being criticised, can critique – for Marx – make a meaningful contribution to the practical project of emancipatory transformation.

Seeing What Was Already There

I’m in that stage in the writing process where the work of figuring things out is going on elsewhere, inaccessible to me – whatever part of me works out complex problems, has holed itself up, toiling away, and the rest of me is left waiting, a bit drained of energy, able to sense that intense work is being done, but excluded from the work process and in the dark as to what its end product might be. Keeping me company are various random associations that seem as though they have something to do with one another, and to whatever I’m trying to figure out. I figured I would toss some of those associations up here.

One of the things that troubles me with Lukács is his equation of the totality with the standpoint of critique – an equation that provides the touchstone, unifying concept throughout History and Class Consciousness. The opening to the essay “The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg” makes this point particularly concisely:

It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and brilliantly transformed into the foundations of a wholly new science. The capitalist separation of the producer from the total process of production, the division of the process of labour into parts at the cost of the individual humanity of the worker, the atomisation of society into individuals who simply go on producing without rhyme or reason, must all have a profound influence on the thought, the science and the philosophy of capitalism. Proletarian science is revolutionary not just by virtue of its revolutionary ideas which it opposes to bourgeois society, but above all because of its method. The primacy of the category of totality is the bearer of the principle of revolution in science. (p. 27)

Lukács’ emphasis on totality can be read as a sophisticated, Hegelian inflection of a common line of criticism of capitalism in the crisis-ridden period of the transition from the laissez-faire era to the development of more state-centred forms of capitalism: the critique emphasises the irrationality of capitalism, understood to be caused by the retention of an outmoded system of private property ownership and competition between capitals that prevents production and distribution from becoming fully transparent to itself, and hence rational, through centralised state planning.

The experiences of the mid-20th century led to an intense reaction against this form of critique, as state planning and the suspension of private ownership and competition, were realised in intensely repressive forms. “Rational” planning proved compatible with the rational administration of terror. In such conditions, the political ideal of a society that had become fully transparent to itself, no longer seemed to hold emancipatory promise but, instead, to imply that there would be nowhere left to hide. The pessimism of the first generation Frankfurt School issues out of its confrontation with what appeared to be the horrific oppressive realisation of socialist ideals.

So there are historical reasons for unease with Lukács’ vision of the totality as the standpoint of critique – fears that this sort of critical discourse is “normatively underdetermined” in the sense that it does not provide critical purchase on the kinds of oppression that are mediated by the state. A theory whose central critical concept is the “all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts” sounds, to contemporary ears, much more likely to facilitate and apologise for oppression, than to bring to light emancipatory possibilities.

But it’s not just 20th century history that suggests that the totality is not the best way to conceptualise the standpoint of critique. I’m writing away from my books, and so I can’t demonstrate this point textually in this post, but there is considerable material from the Grundrisse and from Capital to suggest that Marx equates the viewpoint from the totality, with a particular moment in the process of the reproduction of capital (Murray has made the point, for example, that the category of capital is introduces using Hegel’s vocabulary for the Geist – suggesting, at the very least, that Marx would not agree with Lukács’ attempt to use a similar vocabulary for the proletariat, in order to claim the totality-eye-view as the perspective of the revolution…).

If Marx does not intend the totality to be his standpoint of critique, what does he intend? How does Marx conceptualise his critical standpoint? My suggestion – and I toss this out as a placeholder for future development, rather than as an argument I intend to make in any adequate way here – is that Marx finds his standpoint, precisely not in the totality, but in various “part contexts” that are generated in and through the process of the reproduction of capital, whose distinctive potentials we tend not to “see”, because our gaze focusses instead on the ways in which these parts are currently configured into a particular whole. A great deal of Capital consists of breaking larger wholes down into their various potential parts, exploring the implications of those parts – both as they are currently configured as moments that make a contribution to the reproduction of capital, and as they might potentially be reconfigured in order to realise very different forms of collective life.

Marx metaphorises capitalism as a kind of Frankenstein’s monster – as a reanimated creature – stitched together from disparate parts, each with their own distinctive tendencies, ensorcelled to contribute to ends that are not intrinsic or essentially bound to those parts. Social actors indigenous to this monstrous context find themselves adopting practical orientations toward these parts, reproducing the parts necessarily in the process of (unintentionally) generating the whole – the subjective and objective consequence of this process, is that the reproduction of capital necessarily drags along in its wake the reproduction of these diverse habits, forms of being in the world, material potentials, and other “resources” that can be repurposed to different social ends. Critique within this framework does not speak from the point of view of the totality (although it may need to recognise that a certain kind of whole is currently being reproduced), but rather from the point of view of the parts – of their disparate potentials, which are currently being abridged in order that this particular whole might persist. To seize these potentials, however, we need to shake off the enchantment that this particular whole, is the only possible whole – we need to learn to search beneath the totality, to begin to recognise the potentials of a diverse array of constituent parts.

I will hopefully write on all this much more adequately in the coming months. For the moment, I’ll just point to a fortuitous image – a poem that happened to be linked for other reasons entirely over at Concurring Opinions today – Kenneth Koch’s “One Train May Hide Another”:

In a poem, one line may hide another line,

As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.

That is, if you are waiting to cross

The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at

Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read

Wait until you have read the next line —

Then it is safe to go on reading.


One song hide another song; a pounding upstairs

Hide the beating of drums. One friend may hide another, you sit at the foot of a tree

With one and when you get up to leave there is another

Whom you’d have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher,

One doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man

May hide another. Pause to let the first one pass.

You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It can be important

To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.

Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, pt. 1

I’ve been wanting for some time to toss up some notes on Lukács’ essay “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat” from History and Class Consciousness (note that the version of this text online at suffers from a number of OCR issues, most of them just nuisances, but some more significant, including omitted phrases and sentences – the text version is preferable).

Each time I sit down to post something on this text, I find myself hesitating over how to approach this work, without quite understanding the basis for my hesitation. I think part of my difficulty is that the text strikes me as often tantalisingly sophisticated in its details, while frustratingly superficial in its overarching perspective. I’m not sure how to capture its contradictions, without myself becoming mired in minutiae. We’ll see how I go… As with the other posts in the “Marxes” category, this one will consist mainly of notes and sketches – written internalistically to myself. I’ll revisit a slice of this material more formally soon, as Lukács is the focus of one of the papers I will be presenting in Europe. For the moment, though, I want to speak in a more tentative voice, and wander through the text in a nonsystematic way… I’m low on laptop battery at the moment, so just the barest of preliminary thoughts here, without even getting into the text at all – just opening the curtain, with more to follow.

One of the problems that confronts Marxist theory is how to understand the relationship of its own categories – which appear to be “economic” categories – to social phenomena that are not generally taken to be “economic” in nature. The stereotypical “vulgar” solution to this problem is reductionism: those dimensions of social life that are taken to be “economic” are posited as ontologically or causally primary in some sense, and other dimensions of social life are taken to be epiphenomena – caused by, or expressive of, an “underlying” economic reality. This reductionist impulse can extend into fairly sophisticated forms of theory, which grant various kinds of relative autonomy and/or reciprocal causal power to “non-economic” dimensions of social experience. Regardless of the epicycles permitted around the reductionist core, critique tends to be understood as a voice that speaks from the standpoint of an “underlying”, more “essential” reality, in order to target more epiphenomenal or artificial dimensions of social experience.

Lukács is, among other things, an attempt to think this problem in a different way – to do away with the dualistic question of how to relate the “economic” categories of Marxist theory to other social dimensions, by rendering apparently “economic” categories into descriptors of a distinctive form of social life. Within this framework, the theory of capitalism becomes, not an economic theory, but a theory of modernity, and apparently economic categories are reinterpreted as categories of the distinctive forms of subjectivity and objectivity characteristic of modern society. Modern society itself is conceptualised as a totality – and critique is understood as a voice that speaks from the standpoint of the totality, in order to realise the potentials of that totality.

My own work shares the sense that Marx’s own categories should not be understood as “economic” categories in the conventional meaning of that term – that these are categories of distinctive forms of social practice, intended to describe the practical rituals through which indigenous members of capitalist society collectively (and largely unintentionally) enact distinctive forms of subjectivity and objectivity. My analysis, however, does not rely on a notion of “totality” (and tends to view the perception of capitalism as a “totality” as a false, albeit plausible, extrapolation from hypostatising a small subset of the potentials generated by the process of the reproduction of capital), and regards the process of the reproduction of capital as only one dimension of modern social experience, albeit a dimension whose global reach and peculiarly abstract properties render it plausible to experience this slice of social experience as a “background” within which other dimensions of social life unfold. This form of theory attempts to grasp a specific kind of critique – a critique of the process of the reproduction of capital – and attempts to give voice to the conflictual practical orientations that social actors routinely adopt in the process of enacting the reproduction of capital, in order to show that the process of the reproduction of capital is precisely not a totality, but a conflictual assemblage that can potentially be reassembled in different ways, unleashing different potentials for personal and social experience. The standpoint of this form of critique is that diverse constellation of potentials that are being partially enacted, and yet also abridged, by the current configuration of the reproduction of capital. The goal, following Benjamin, is to make our own history citable in more of its moments…

More very soon…

Fragment on the Concept of a “Standpoint of Critique”

The recent discussion of Derrida’s Specters of Marx has reminded me (albeit in a somewhat indirect way) that I should probably toss up some notes on the concept of a “standpoint of critique” – a term I often use to cast light on how I understand other bits of technical vocabulary I use, but which I don’t believe I’ve ever written on in its own right. I’m never sure, I think, how common or self-evident the concept of a “standpoint of critique” might be – the concept isn’t a difficult one and, unlike other technical terms I use (“immanence”, “reflexivity”, “theoretical pessimism” – even “critical theory”) that have tended to be controversial in some overt way, I don’t believe anyone has ever asked me to explain what I mean by “critical standpoint”. Still, I can’t help but be struck by some key differences between how I think the question of “critical standpoint” is posed by Marx, compared to how the question seems to be posed in many other theoretical traditions. If nothing else, I thought that tugging on some of these differences might help me articulate some of what I am trying to say about Marx’s work.

At the most general level, a “standpoint of critique” is something that accounts for the critical ideals or sensibilities that are expressed in a critical theory. Here’s the first rub: theories differ over why such an account is needed – and therefore what needs to be accounted for. Generally, an account of a “standpoint of critique” attempts to explain the genesis of critical sensibilities – to explain where critical sensibilities “come from”, how critical sensibilities are generated. Very often, the possibility for the emergence of critical sensibilities is pointed back to the something that prevents social actors from becoming fully “identical” to their socialisation – pointed back to some aspect of material or social nature that cannot be fully subsumed into any particular form of socialisation. In this case, critical sensibilities are understood to express something that conditions the possibilities for practice that are available to social actors, but that represents a sort of breakdown in the process of socialisation or a “remainder” that exceeds socialisation. Depending on the theory, this breakdown or remainder might result from some intrinsic and ineradicable imperfection in socialisation itself, in some property of our physical embodiment, in some characteristic of language, in some aspect of material nature, or in other properties or processes that are interpreted to secure or guarantee that social actors can never succeed in becoming fully “at home” in their social context. These sorts of explanation for “critical standpoint” can vary substantially from one another. In spite of these differences, they share a conception that critical sensibilities are generated in a failure in socialisation (albeit that this failure may be conceptualised as intrinsic to, and even constitutive of, socialisation itself) that creates an ever-present possibility for social actors to achieve a level of distance from any particular form of socialisation – not simply distance from whatever forms of socialisation might be present at the moment the theory is articulated.

Marx, I want to suggest, approaches the question of “critical standpoint” in a slightly different way. He subordinates the question of how critical sensibilities are generated, to the question of how the practices that reproduce the social context, simultaneously involve the practical constitution of resources, institutions, habits, and ideals that sit in tension with the process of reproduction that generates them. In this approach, the rise of critical sensibilities does not relate to the breakdown of socialisation or to a remainder that exceeds socialisation, but instead to the success of socialisation – in the specific context where the social form being reproduced, generates conflictual possibilities. Here, the argument about critical sensibilities is less an argument about the characteristics of social actors (although this must be theorised as well), than it is an argument about the characteristics of the social context itself. The core of the argument is an explanation of why it is not utopian to judge the existing process of social reproduction as wanting – critical ideals are accounted for, by demonstrating that these ideals can be “cashed out” by relating them to practical potentials whose genesis is the direct concern of the theory. In this approach, it is socialisation – rather than its breakdown or excession – that gives rise to the critical standpoint to which the theory appeals. As a consequence, the theory has nothing to say about how critical ideals might arise in other social contexts, and its account of critical standpoint must be understood to be limited to the society it criticises: this theory is the theory of its object, and lives and dies with the target of its critique.

These two approaches to understanding critical standpoint are not intrinsically contradictory: they simply theorise different objects. Where this is not understood, discussions or comparisons between the two sorts of approaches can speak to cross purposes. To some degree, I see this happening in Derrida’s analysis of Marx in Specters: the “dry messianic” spirit Derrida hopes to resurrect from Marx’s work, seems to invoke a concept of critical standpoint as an ineradicable possibility – a critical standpoint related to the necessary imperfection in the iteration required for the reproduction of our social inheritance. From this standpoint, Marx’s various suggestions that the transformation of capitalism would overcome the tensions and conflicts in socialisation, look violently utopian – they appear as assertions that the overcoming of capitalism would also overcome the non-identity of the individual and society. To most theorists of the latter half of the 20th century, this sort of formulation carries totalitarian overtones – it is not surprising this would be a spirit Derrida would wish to “exorcise” from Marx’s work. If Marx is understood, however, as taking his critical standpoint from within capitalism itself, his claims read a bit differently: not as assertions that the overcoming of capitalism would overcome any potential for critique or any source of non-identity between the individual and society, but simply as assertions that – definitionally – overcoming capitalism means an overcoming of those specific tensions that characterise its distinctive process of reproduction.

Marx of course is writing too early to know to fend off this particular line of misinterpretation – some formulations are ambiguous or inconsistent with the main line of his analysis. My concern is less to protect Marx against critiques of his own ambiguities, than it is to draw attention to a way of exploring the question of critical standpoint, in a way that relates this question directly to an analysis of specific practical potentials that are immanent to the process of social reproduction being criticised, where the concern is less to explain why sensibilities arise, than to demonstrate that sensibilities can be pointed back to practical, non-utopian potentials for change. Whether Marx succeeds in this task is separable from the question of whether this might be a useful line of exploration for contemporary critical theory.

Still a bit tired from my trip – will post without reading back over this, with apologies for editing issues and for the fragmentary nature of these observations.

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.

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.

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.