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Category Archives: Critique

Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 1: Random Metatheory

My previous post in the series on the first chapter of Capital has prompted a nice set of meta-theoretical questions from Nate, revolving loosely around the question of whether some of my formulations suggest the need to breach the immanent frame of the analysis. This discussion is still continuing in the comments, but some of the questions that have come up in that discussion strike me as potentially relevant for the main line of analysis of Marx’s text.

What I want to do in this post, is not so much answer Nate’s questions directly, as use the thought-space that those questions have opened as an excuse, first, to explore some of the implications of this reading of Capital for how we can conceptualise critical judgements about competing forms of theory and practice generated immanently within capitalism. And second, to talk a bit about how this kind of theory involves a form of relativising, locating, or situating dispositions (intuitive forms of perception and thought) by demonstrating at least one dimension of collective practice in which such dispositions are enacted, without, however, reducing dispositions to the theorised form of enactment (i.e., without claiming that the theorised form of enactment is the only space in which such dispositions are enacted), and without automatically undermining the validity of such dispositions (i.e., without acting as though situating a disposition by itself suffices to debunk the insights or potentials that disposition expresses).

Although I will use examples from the first chapter of Capital to explore these issues, my goal here is a bit different from my goal in other posts in this series: here, I will be deploying a particular reading of Marx without, however, trying to render this reading plausible with reference to the text of Capital. I may use some occasional quotations for illustrative purposes, but I’ll leave for the other posts in this series, the issue of whether I can defend this kind of reading textually. I will also not be concerned here with whether the reading I’m deploying is making a defensible argument about capitalism: my concern is rather to explore the form of the argument, the sorts of moves the argument makes, regardless of the content. By limiting the post in this way, I will try to bring some of the meta-theoretical implications of this reading a bit more clearly into view.

Okay. Where to start. I think the easiest way to organise this discussion is to explore (in a very, very superficial way) one example of a set of dispositions that Marx begins to “situate” in the first chapter of Capital – an example that relates to dispositions we might be tempted to associate with the study of the natural world (note that, in the discussion with Nate below, I have sketched a partial second example, relating to dispositions that we might associate with the study of history). These dispositions are related in complex ways to how social actors might be tempted to orient themselves in practice – they thus carry potential political implications, even if these implications might not be immediately clear when Marx begins his analysis.

The first chapter begins to suggest that there is some way in which we are enacting, in collective practice, a kind of social indifference to different forms of labouring activity. This indifference does not extend to all dimensions of collective practice: in some dimensions of practice, the variegated qualitative forms in which labour is expended remain collectively important. In at least one specific dimension of collective practice, however, we are treating a wide range of empirically distinct labouring activities as, in some respect, qualitatively the same – and thus enacting a practical equality of types of human labour (a practical equality that, significantly, takes the form of a coercive and normalising indifference to empirical labouring activities).

Because of how we are enacting this equality, however, it is not immediately obvious that we are the ones enacting it. The argument for why it is not immediately obvious – for why it might be structurally difficult for us to recognise our own collective hand in constituting various forms of labouring activity as equal in at least one dimension of collective practice – is complex, and not fully laid out in the first chapter of Capital. Very roughly, in terms of what is visible at this early stage in Capital, the argument involves a claim we are enacting a collective indifference to the qualitative diversity of labouring activities “behind our own backs” – unintentionally and coercively – through a form of mutual compulsion that we are not individually or collectively setting out to generate. This particular form of unintentional mutual compulsion possesses certain specific qualitative characteristics: it is “universalising”, “lawlike”, and coercively “normalising”, and manifests itself via quantitative relationships that seem to govern movements of the products of labour. It also drives a constant process of transformation of concrete labouring processes, thereby constituting such processes as contingent and potentially ephemeral. It confronts individuals and social groups as an alien force outside themselves and beyond their control, to which they must adapt. Investigation can lead to the discovery and description of some of the lawlike principles of this form of compulsion. These discoveries, however, do not by themselves dissolve the coercive force of this compulsion, which, although contingent and grounded in human practice, is not “imaginary” or subject to individual control.

Note that, at this stage in the text, when the category of capital itself has not yet been unfolded, the metaphors for this impersonal social compulsion tend toward the “Newtonian” – toward metaphors of universal, abstract, mathematical laws. As we approach the category of capital, the metaphors will become more organimistic – more vitalist. I’ll discuss this shift more adequately in relation to Marx’s text at a later point. (This point begins to suggest how I would eventually like to answer a question posed by Joseph Kugelmass some weeks back about why the model of capitalism I’ve been pointing toward seems to resemble some thematisations of evolution and complexity theory. I suspect that, in asking this question, Joe might have been tugging on some of the threads he has now written into a fantastic post at his own site and The Valve. Just as a quick side note – Joe: I haven’t forgotten your question: perhaps it will be becoming a little bit clearer why this is a particularly complicated question for me to answer, even though it’s an important question to ask… Some of your questions on uneven development from that same comment, incidentally, also lie in the background of some of my discussions in the previous post in this series – albeit very abstractly, at this point.)

For the moment, I simply draw attention to the fact that the account in the first chapter is not intended to be complete, and note that Marx will eventually ground other dispositions, aside from the lawlike universals that concern him here. In any case, when Marx draws attention to specific qualitative characteristics associated with unintentional forms of impersonal compulsion, he is setting up for an analysis of why there is an intrinsic, immanent, “structural” risk that certain specific moments generated by collective practice within capitalism, might plausibly be interpreted, not as peculiar dimensions of our social environment, but instead as qualitative characteristics of asocial material nature. The argument here is both extremely complex and irritatingly tacit in Marx’s text, and I can at best be gestural at this point. But Marx is suggesting that a complex combination of factors – the unintentional nature of the compulsion, its impersonal character, the fact that it manifests itself through the movements of “things”, the way that other elements of social practice become, by contrast, “overtly” social (demonstrated in practice to be arbitrary and contingent, and forced to adapt themselves to this more impersonal form of social compulsion) and a number of other factors – combine to render it plausible for dispositions to emerge that interpret this dimension of social practice as asocial.

The implications of this go beyond the claim that this “impersonal” dimension of social practice is thereby “naturalised” and shielded from critique. The suggestion here is also that our practical experience of this dimension of capitalism “primes” us to “expect”, or sensitises us to the possibility, that asocial environments will possess certain specific qualitative characteristics (note that these characteristics can be mutually exclusive or contradictory of one another – as always, Marx tends to try to capture capitalism as an unstable unity of opposites): that the asocial world is quintessentially “material”, for example, and that such a world exists “outside us”, as an object for human contemplation or manipulation; that the asocial world is governed by impersonal universal laws best captured via mathematical models; that the asocial world (or elements of it) has vitalist properties and should be seen as in some sense a self-determining organism; etc. Again, I am not trying here to do full justice to these suggestions in Marx’s text, but more to open a sense of the scope of the argument and a feel for the way the argument is intended to operate. The important thing here is that there is a complex argument in Marx’s text about the ways in which we unintentionally render ourselves open to certain possibilities through our experience as social actors enacting and engaging with moments of capitalism.

Okay. Here a complex dance begins. I’m going to make the claim that, in unfolding this kind of argument, Marx is not trying to reduce everything we think and perceive back to specific moments in capitalism. First, the theory of capitalism is bounded – it doesn’t capture everything in contemporary experience, and it in fact explicitly defines certain things as contingent (or, at least, as untheorisable), from the perspective available to this specific kind of theory. A simple example of this kind of defined contingency can be found in Marx’s discussion about the conflict over the working day, expressed in the famous passage:

We see then, that, apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class.

What this passage suggests is that Marx can theorise that a particular structure of social conflict is intrinsic and likely to recur under capitalism, and he can even say a bit about the forms in which this conflict will likely be articulated (about plausible self-conceptions of political subjects and about likely forms of self-organisation, for example). He cannot, however, theorise the outcome of the conflict in any particular instance: force decides. Marx’s descriptions of actual political conflicts in Capital express this combination of contingent and “theorisable” elements – Marx is clearly comfortable with the boundedness of his theoretical framework, and with the tools it can provide to orient action, even though there are also limits to the reach of the theory (which have to do, interestingly, with limits to the compulsions that characterise capitalism itself: it’s not necessarily a good thing, strictly speaking, to inhabit a context amenable to this form of theorisation – the possibility for this form of theory itself is a testament to the existence of a particular form of constraint). As I continue to move forward through the text in future posts, I’ll no doubt have occasion to draw attention to other examples of this sort of self-bounding of the theory.

Second, the fact that a particular form of perception and thought is enacted in a specific moment of capitalism, does not mean that this form of perception and thought cannot also be enacted in some other way in collective practice. Just to take a throwaway example: Marx makes an extremely complex argument about the specific ways in which a kind of human equality is enacted in collective practice in the reproduction of capitalism. This doesn’t mean, however, that human equality is not or cannot be enacted in completely different ways (in fact, it is actually essential for Marx’s critique that it at least be possible to enact certain dispositions in different ways, else the abolition of capitalism would necessarily entail the abolition of forms of perception and thought that Marx clearly wants to preserve and views as integral to a more emancipated form of collective life). So, a particular group of people may well constitute some local environment in the present time that enacts some kind of human equality in a particular way that is separable from the ways in which a particular kind of equality is unintentionally played out in capitalist reproduction – or a human collectivity in the future might devise very different (less abstract and formal, etc.) ways of enacting human equality in a very different form of social life.

Third, even if Marx successfully establishes that a particular form of perception and thought arises as a moment in the reproduction of capitalism, this kind of argument does not by itself invalidate the entirety of this form of perception and thought. Again, let’s take the issue of human equality as an example. Marx’s argument here (and please forgive that I am stating this very, very roughly, and without trying to establish the plausibility of the argument, but only to give a sense of some of the “moves” involved) is that, in some dimension of collective practice, we are coercively enacting an indifference to the variegated qualitative forms of commodities – including commodities of the human sort – by treating those commodities, in collective practice, as bearers of a common, qualitatively homogeneous social substance, which Marx calls “value”. Sticking to the terms set out in the first chapter, we are (at first unintentionally) collectively treating commodities (including humans) as “intrinsically” material objects that possess supersensible essences and are governed by impersonal universal laws, but which can also be contingently pressed into arbitrary and ephemeral social roles. By engaging in this unintentional practice, we inadvertently constitute a situation in which “the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice”.

This prejudice has a strange, “counterfactual” character, since it is not based on any extrapolation or conceptual abstraction from our experience of empirical humans, but rather on our experience of a “real abstraction” generated in collective practice (I realise the nature of this argument will probably not be completely clear at this point – this is one of the issues I hope to thematise more precisely as I continue moving through Capital). It is therefore socially plausible that a belief in human equality should arise and spread, in conditions in which humans are in other dimensions of social practice treated profoundly unequally. This belief may then provide the motive force for the emergence of social movements that mobilise to transform other dimensions of collective practice, in order to enact the equality already being practised elsewhere. (Note that the qualitative form of equality sought politically – abstract, formal, and universalising, for example – can also be primed by the qualitative characteristics in which equality is coercively enacted in the course of capitalist reproduction.)

When social actors set about trying to understand the basis for this belief in human equality, however, they run the risk of not grasping the social genesis of the impersonal dimension of capitalist practice in which this equality is being unintentionally enacted. This risk does not reflect the potential that social actors might make a “mere” conceptual error or suffer from a defect in cognition, but is rather a risk grounded in the determinate qualitative form of specific moments within capitalism. If social actors fail to grasp this social genesis, then they might, for example, conclude that human equality is natural, while the various forms of inequality that confront us on all sides in other dimensions of social practice, might strike them, by contrast, as artificial: “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.”

When they try to explain the basis for this “natural” equality, they might interpret it in biological or physiological terms – Marx suggests that this is a socially plausible interpretive move when he mentions that we treat commodities as material objects in at least one dimension of social practice. Or they might interpret this naturally equality more “spiritually”, in terms of the supersensible essence – the ghost in the machine – that also emerges in our collective enactment of the commodity form.

By “grounding” these interpretive moves, by suggesting that it makes a certain social sense or reflects a certain immanent plausibility that these sorts of interpretive strategies would arise, Marx is not necessarily debunking the entirety of the claims associated with these interpretations. His argument suggests that we are “primed” for, or may find it more “intuitive” to arrive at, specific kinds of interpretations – that these interpretations seem “always already familiar” to us, and therefore lie ready at hand – in part because they do express and are adequate to particular aspects of the context in which they arise. This does not mean that these are the only interpretations possible, or that it is “predetermined” that social actors will make specific interpretations – only that they have a certain social plausibility (since Marx treats capitalism as a complex and multi-layered social form, there are always multiple plausible perspectives, such that forms of perception and thought are neither random, nor are they fully theoretically determinable) . Probabilistically, it is likely that certain kinds of interpretations will arise, given the specific qualitative characteristics of our collective practice. Marx’s argument also suggests that the existence of such interpretations can deflect our attention from the ways in which, to continue with the example, we are enacting a certain sort of equality (coercively) in collective practice. But it leaves open the possibility that these interpretive moves might themselves be subject to validation (and contestation) in their own terms (albeit with a complex potential for cross-interference between moments within capitalism and other elements within collective practice).

To explore this just a little bit more: take, as an example, the notion, mentioned above, that there might be a biological basis for human equality. Marx argues that we enact a kind of equality in collective practice by treating commodities as though they are partake in some qualitatively homogeneous social substance, which he calls value. Commodities might vary in how much of this social substance they embody, but they all share this common qualitative social “essence”. He also argues that there is a determinate risk that this common social substance won’t be recognised as social, but will instead be interpreted as “material”. If, in commodities of the human sort, this social “essence” is misinterpreted as a biological substance, this opens up certain deeply ambivalent potentials. It becomes plausible, for example, to investigate how biologically similar humans actually might be to one another, and to open up for a “secular” investigation of the human form. There is potential in such an investigation for uncovering new grounds for the assertion of human equality, as well as for other scientific and medical discoveries that increase our mastery over our own physiological states. There is also, however, great risk that biological difference – gender, race, disability, simple biological variation from the “norm” – can become inflected in terms of a lack of the common “substance” that renders us equally human – that a biologised notion of the potential basis for human equality could increase the vulnerability to a situation in which biological difference is taken as an “objective” or “material” refutation of the possibility of human equality, and received (given our “priming” to view the “material” as asocial and impersonal) as something more “objective” and less contingent than forms of inequality that appear to result from practices that we are “primed” to perceive as “overtly social” – and therefore as arbitrary and ephemeral.

One reason for exploring the links between such potentials and risks, and capitalist reproduction, is that it makes it a bit easier to understand why certain kinds of theories may recurrently arise (and be defeated, and arise again) so long as capitalism continues to be reproduced: capitalism itself may (in nonintuitive ways) be priming dispositions that render social actors receptive to specific interpretive schemas. At the same time, the sorts of social practices that might be directly associated with the reproduction of capitalism, need not be the sole or even, in particular periods, the primary ways in which particular forms of perception and thought are “primed”: other forms of institutionalisation and other types of social practice that are more contingent in relation to capitalist reproduction may operate to reinforce or to diminish the force of our experiences in engaging with, and extrapolating from, specific moments immanent to capitalism.

On another level, the ability to demonstrate that some particular set of dispositions plays a role in capitalist reproduction, does not by itself “debunk” those dispositions: capitalism may, for example, prime us to be open to many new potentials that we value and wish to retain. Theorising how we might open ourselves to such potentials simply prepares us to understand a bit more about how our own appreciation for specific potentials (and, no doubt, relative insensitivity to others) is located – is something that exists for us, in ways that we can potentially come to understand a bit better. This process of understanding our own locatedness then also potentially renders more readily available a movement across the various moments and perspectives that are available to us, rather than a default glide into whatever perspective happens to lie most closely to mind… But this is an issue for a different metatheoretical discussion.

It’s late, I’m becoming very tired, and I have a very long day tomorrow (apologies, as well, that I’ll be very unlikely to be active online over the next couple of days). I had wanted to do much more with the sorts of things I’ve discussed above (I’m particularly self-conscious about this topic, as there are folks lurking about who know far more about the specific issues, well outside the confines of a theory of capitalism, than I ever will: if it needs to be said, I’m not making grand claims for the power of a theory of capitalism to thematise such issues in a general way, but rather suggesting that there is more potential for interconnection and cross-fertilisation than might appear if Capital is read, for example, as a straightforward “economic” theory). In part, I’m realising that I’m hampered by not having gotten further in the discussion of Capital and, in part, I need more time and space for much greater nuance that I’ve allowed myself above – hopefully the resultant post won’t be too irritating, but will be taken as a sort of promissory note that I can hopefully cash in, in a less superficial way, at some later point.

Previous posts in this series include:

Fragment on Textual Strategy in Capital

Reflections on the “Greatest Difficulty”

Nature and Society

Value and Abstract Labour as Real Abstractions

An Aside on the Fetish

Human Labour in the Abstract

An Aside on the Category of Capital

Value and Its Form – from Deduction to Dialectic

Subjects, Objects and Things In Between

Not Knowing Where to Have It

Cartesian Fragment

Relativism, Absolutes, and the Present as History

Outline of a Practice of Theory

Just a quick pointer to Alexei’s “Philosophy and Social Change” over at Now-Times. In this post, Alexei picks up more systematically on several of the threads from the recent discussions here and at The Kugelmass Episodes (cross-posted to The Valve) on how to conceptualise the relationship of theory and practice. A brief teaser:

Such a concepion of the import of Theory for social, ‘radical’ change, might shift the implicit question that seems to guide the current politicization of the humanities. The predominant view that the Humanities lack any immediate effect hen it comes to social and political change of certain tendencies of theory, which is concentrated in Literary studies and Philosophy, or perhaps even from Anthropology and Sociology, stems from a guilty conscience that ‘necessarily attaches to our precise social position: we can study only within a system, but the price of being able to study is effectively the renunciation of any direct, practical activity. We don’t build bridges, or even dig ditches. We don’t save lives, or even make them ‘better’ (or maybe that’s just me and my relationship to my students). And since there are only 24 hours in the day, and some of us are profoundly lazy, we simply can’t be as directly engaged as we think we ought to be. Being an academic these days amounts to a guilty conscience precisely because we are aware of our paradoxical situation. We rely upon a system we wish to change and simultaneously insulate ourselves from this very system in order to pursue our academic — and generally impractical in the short term — studies. More than anything else, I think that the burgeoning guilt of being an academic (in the Humanities) accounts for the politicization of various fields in the humanities.

Now, I’m certainly not claiming that this is a bad thing. I would, however, like to point out that no one, prior to, say, May ‘68, would have ever thought that the humanities were somehow ineffectual. And it’s this shift that needs to be investigated.

I’ll have to apologise to both Alexei and Joe, as well as to anyone else who has been following these exchanges, for not being able to dive into this discussion in greater detail: I’m in the middle of some particularly difficult conceptual work at the moment, and need to remain a bit single-minded for the next several days. So, while I may (or may not!) toss up some further contributions to the series of posts on Capital, as these posts relate to what I’m currently working on, my ability to participate in other discussions will be severely curtailed for the moment. In the interim, there’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on in the comments here without me (!), and in Alexei’s post at Now-Times – and I do promise to pick up the various hanging threads from this discussion as soon as I can free myself of my current domination by the form of Value… ;-P

What Is Radical?

Hopefully Alexei won’t mind if I lift his latest comment into a more prominent space. The original context for the comment I’m reproducing below is in the still-percolating discussion of self-reflexivity: this comment was posted here, and was written as a direct response to this comment from Joe. I don’t want to deflect the original discussion, but my feeling was that Alexei’s response raises issues that are much more general (and – without speaking for Joe – might also be closer to the sorts of issues Joe has been trying to discuss all along). Alexei here defends a particular understanding of the value of theory and of the nature of radical transformation, to which I would like to draw attention:


while I too share your concern for the practicality of theory or philosophy, and I agree with you hat there is no such thing as ‘neutral theorizing.’ But I’m not at all sure I would agree with either of your metaphors. Like you, I don’t buy the idea that theory is mere observation. Nor, however do i think that there is an incisive — and decisive — moment, which, if missed, signals the failure to actualize whatever possibility it uncovered. Even if one picks the lock to an other’s home, bt takes nothing, and the other installs a new deadbolt, one still has the tools — and the skill — to pick it again, not to mention the knowledge of where the valuables are kept. As I see the matter, only fashion and reactionary politics can be “revolutionary”; Radical change, I think, is slow in coming.

So, if I might proffer my own analogy, I tend to think that philosophy/theory is much more like (but not identical to) Schrödinger’s box in that it is always already a world constituting and transforming intervention — although its effects are not as immediate or as direct as perhaps we would like them to be. It’s objects are social kinds, and hence produced by social practices, which can be changed by different modes of thinking. To pick up the example you used here, we need only think about the number of people who smoke today, compared to the number of folks who smoked in the first half of the 20th Century. And, while it may be true that I can come to recognize that I am addicted to cigarettes, and that smoking is killing me (however slowly), but nevertheless continue to smoke — and enjoy it — I may also affirm the various anti-smoking (by-)laws that prohibit smoking in public places, attempt to make sure minors cannot begin to smoke, etc. I can change the way we think about smoking. And, with a little luck smoking will be passé, a few generations down the road, . It may not help me, but it nevertheless changes the complexion of our social spheres.

Similarly, a theorist pursues a political interest by thinking and writing about it (I realize this probably sounds naive, but please bear with me). He disseminates his mode of thought by talking, by teaching, and by publishing, though not necessarily to bring about any immediate change, but rather to initiate its possibility (think here of Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex). That is to say, a theorist creates politically important issues by making them public.

Now, perhaps I’m too patient, but I’m sceptical of every brand of millinerian theory, any Leninist avant-guardism (like Zizek’s), which promises that the revolution is (or could be) imminent, or that Utopia must come here and now. I’m sceptical of quick fixes, since they tend to come in moments of crisis, of implacable guilt, and they only lead to the continuation of crisis. At the moment, I actually think that we need more thinking, and less (mindless, instinctual, or responsive) action. We need to understand what it means to act politically, what a political action entails, whom it affects, and what it requires. And all this is this is a far cry from picking a lock, and stealing the establishment’s stereo for the good of the folks on the street.

I admit that, while I might tinker around the margins, I am sympathetic to the positions Alexei is sketching here.

We have no shortage of revolutions. Capitalism is a dynamic social form, which reproduces itself through dramatic cascades of structural transformation. The dynamic nature of the context means that it is extremely easy to confuse whatever transformation happens to follow the next crisis, with a movement toward liberation. The distinctive form of social reproduction – and the abstract character of what is being reproduced – makes it particularly important for transformative practice to gain a sense of what our context is, how the context operates, how the context is reproduced – and means that these questions lack simple and intuitive answers.

This doesn’t mean that no meaningful or important action can take place without some particular theoretical insight. It doesn’t mean that theory is a unique or exceptionalised reservoir of critical ideals. It certainly doesn’t mean that theorists have any “vanguardist” place in the leadership of social movements. It does mean that the dichotomy often drawn between “theory” and “practice” may be uniquely and specifically debilitating – may function as a form of “ideology” in the service of social reproduction – if we are oriented toward achieving emancipatory change in the present time.

Theory is a moment within collective practice, a moment which seeks to recognise and work through the implications of potentials that collective practice has already created (often unintentionally and unawares), a moment that seeks – along with other forms of practice – to deepen, extend and cultivate those potentials, to make them more available for targeted and deliberate political action in the service of emancipatory goals. The premise here is not that theoretical insight is somehow immediately and intrinsically transformative – that theory will snap its conceptual fingers, break the spell of identification, and instantaneously liberate us all. The premise is that, even in conditions where the spell is already broken and desires for liberation hang palpable in the air, we still need to work out how to extricate ourselves from the cycle that William Morris describes so well:

…men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name…

As It Is

I’ve spent the weekend trying to piece together abstracts and get my head around things I will present for various upcoming events – an activity that has torn my thoughts into all sorts of directions other than where I wanted to be thinking right now. Too scattered for focussed posting, and heading into my teaching week, which typically doesn’t leave me with time for substantive comments, I thought I should at least toss up something to change the scenery. 😉

From Adrienne Rich “The Spirit of Place” II & V

taking on the world
as it is   not as we wish it
as it is not as we work for it
to be

The world as it is: not as her users boast
damaged beyond reclamation by their using
Ourselves as we are in these painful motions
of staying cognizant: some part of us always
out beyond ourselves
knowing knowing knowing
Are we all in training for something we don't name?
to exact reparation for things
done long ago to us and to those who did not
survive what was done to them   whom we ought to honor
with grief with fury with action

Quick Reflexes

So I’ve finally finished my homework (or, as the case may be, other people’s homework that I’ve been marking), and can come out to play – only briefly, unfortunately, as today is a very heavy teaching day for me. I wanted, though, at least to begin to take up Joseph Kugelmass’ post on self-reflexivity (with discussions currently underway at The Kugelmass Episodes and The Valve). I won’t be able to address all the issues Joe raises adequately, in the amount of time I have to reply today. But hopefully I can at least tug on a couple of threads, and see what that manages to unravel…

I want to start with the challenging declaration with which Joe begins: “From my point of view, reflexive critiques are not capable of doing what we want them to do”. In the comments over at The Valve, rob has already suggested the minefield covered over by this casual “we”. 😉 One of the most fascinating things in the cross-blog discussion of self-reflexivity, has been the range of meanings attached to the term “self-reflexivity”. Not surprisingly, these different meanings carry their own, sometimes radically different, senses of what self-reflexive critiques are, and what purpose such critiques might serve. Joe contributes a new vision of self-reflexivity in his post – one that overlaps with some of the meanings in play in the original discussion, but one that also deviates in interesting ways, setting up for some important critical points about the limitations of self-reflexive theory as Joe understands the term. The first question, then, is what Joe takes self-reflexive theory to be – and how “his” self-reflexive theory relates to the version of self-reflexivity I’ve tended to push on this blog.

Readers who haven’t read Joe’s post should start there. I’ll write this response comment-style, and so this may be a bit difficult to follow if you aren’t familiar with what Joe has written.

Joe begins with a couple of quotes from Sondheim and Zizek, illustrating what he takes self-reflexive theory to be. Both quotes centre on a form of analysis in which an individual (or group) reflects consciously on the formative factors (social, economic, life circumstance) that have made them what they are. Mischievously, Joe selects quotes that represent an all-too-familiar narrative trope, in which persons engaging in violent or criminal activity demonstrate that self-reflection – insight into the possible causes of their objectionable behaviour – can quite happily co-exist with the objectionable behaviour itself. In this way, Joe sets up for a critique of the notion – which I agree is quite common in certain forms of critical theoretic work – that knowledge or insight is somehow intrinsically transformative. Joe’s argument is both that insight can quite easily be divorced from transformation – and that transformation can quite easily be divorced from insight.

Throughout Joe’s post, he glosses the concept of “self-reflexivity” with phrases like “self-reflexive thinking” (my italics), and links self-reflexivity to the self-awareness of individuals or groups – to their understanding of, and conscious reflection on, what causes them to be the way they are. Joe questions the possibility of this kind of self-reflexivity, arguing that we “can [n]ever be so self-aware as to lack an unconscious element“. He also questions the power of this kind of self-reflexivity, questioning theories predicated on the notion that “if I come to understand what is causing my behavior, I will lose interest in repeating this behavior”. This is beautiful, challenging material – Joe is right to push these points, and we should continue to discuss them, as he has hit on some important common assumptions about why theoretical practice might be effective that deserve to be interrogated. It’s precisely because I share substantial sympathy with Joe’s questions, that I feel a twinge of guilt for what I will do next, which is to bracket these questions entirely, in order to make what is essentially a terminological point. For, while Joe’s questions are quite valid and deserve a full discussion, I don’t believe they connect with the specific sense of “self-reflexivity” that I put into play, when discussing what Joe has delightfully christened my “great theme”.

To avoid confusion, I’ll follow the convention that emerged in the cross-blog discussion, and use the term “reflexive theory” to refer to the idiosyncratic constellation of concepts I’ve generally tried to capture through the term “self-reflexivity”. A reflexive theory is not primarily concerned with the question of how an individual theorist adopts a critical attitude or orientation toward their context. The point is not to explain how the critic is possible – or to suggest that some special kind of thinking (“self-reflexive thinking”) will somehow magically constitute a rupture that denaturalises the social field and renders transformation possible. The point instead is to unfold an analysis of the social field that highlights (1) how that field tends to be reproduced, and (2) how the very process of reproduction is such that a particular social field cannot be reproduced, without this process of reproduction also entailing the production of determinate possibilities for transformation. By analysing social reproduction in a way that exposes the existence of such possibilities, the theory “self-reflexively” incorporates itself – its own possibility – an account of the origins of the potentials whose existence the theory expresses – into its theory of social reproduction. A reflexive theory is therefore, as Sinthome has expressed it in his contribution to this exchange, a theory that can account for its “own position of enunciation” – a theory that can specify its “standpoint of critique”, and show how that standpoint is immanent to the society being criticised, rather than reflecting some kind of transcendent standpoint outside of society, against which society is being judged and found wanting.

This question is related in complex ways to the question of how people might come to desire transformation (and I’m happy to discuss these relationships in greater detail), but it is analytically distinct from this question. On a philosophical level, reflexivity is intended to allow a theory to be adequate to the concept of immanence – to make a serious attempt at thinking what critique might look like, if we are not asserting (or tacitly smuggling in) transcendent standards that do not arise immanently within the context within which the theorist is situated. On a practical level, reflexivity is intended to identify social, psychological and material resources, generated by collective processes that may not be consciously intended to have any such result, that suggest the possibility for transformative practice. In this specific sense, it’s unintentionally ironic that Joe sought to contrast what he takes to be my focus on reflexivity, with the form of theory Marx deploys in Capital. Joe argues:

When Karl Marx wrote that the contradictions within capitalism would eventually destroy it, he wasn’t writing a purely reflexive analysis. He was writing a historical analysis that used the transition from feudalism to capitalism as a model for the transition from capitalism to socialism.

Leaving aside that I don’t quite read Marx’s argument this way, what Joe is unintentionally pointing to here is actually very close to my sense of “reflexivity”: Marx is, to me, the quintessential reflexive theorist – which may perhaps clarify how far my notion of self-reflexivity is, from the notion of “self-reflexive thinking”. What is “reflexive”, for me, is the theory – not the theorist’s cognition: if a theory is aiming at emancipatory transformation, the theory reflexively allows for its own possibility by theorising its context in such a way as to highlight how that context produces the potential for particular forms of practice that hold the potential for reacting back on the reproduction of society itself.

This may begin to clarify somewhat how I would respond to Joe’s final question, which relates to why I have expressed an objection to theories that centre themselves on notions of intersubjectivity. The point – and rob and Sinthome have both picked up on this, in their respective interventions – is not to argue that the notion of intersubjectivity is invalid, or to suggest that theories that focus on intersubjectivity are somehow logically inconsistent or lacking in methodological rigour. The point – somewhat ironically, given where Joe begins his post – is that such theories are often very poor at thematising non-conscious, unintentional side effects of collective practice. My quarrel isn’t with the notion of theorising intersubjective processes, but with an exclusive focus on such processes. In his interpretive gloss on my (correctly quoted) comment about theories of intersubjectivity, I notice that Joe adds a “the” outside the quotation, and therefore becomes concerned about what I might regard as “the” central dimensions of contemporary society. I want gently to suggest that this is a concern perhaps introduced from the outside – that the definite article was deliberately omitted from my original comment 🙂 In criticising theories of intersubjectivity, my intention was not to reject them in favour of theories that focus on “the” important issues as I define them, but to draw attention to additional aspects of contemporary society that tend to be overlooked by such theories, including particularly (in the case of my own work) unintended side effects of practices oriented to other purposes entirely.

I’ll have to leave this post in its somewhat undercooked (and unedited!) state – I have to teach until late this evening. Apologies for the truncated discussion here, for the bracketing of important issues, and for any delays that might affect my ability to respond to further comments. The substantive issues Joe raises deserve their own discussion – likely a more interesting one than the terminological issues on which I’ve concentrated here. Hopefully we’ll have time to get back to all these things in the near future.

Circulating Perspectives

Marx begins his discussion of the general formula for capital with an apparently strange distinction, between “money that is money only, and money that is capital”. In Marx’s account, money that “is money only”, is money in its role as a medium of exchange in a circuit in which commodity producers sell their commodities in order to buy other commodities: Marx’s C-M-C – a circuit oriented to the acquisition of a use value that is then consumed, and therefore oriented to a substantive endpoint that lies outside the circuit itself. Money that is capital, by contrast, inhabits a circuit in which possessors of money purchase commodities in order to resell them to obtain more money: Marx’s M-C-M – quickly redefined as M-C-M’ – a circuit oriented to its own endless quantitative expansion. Marx distinguishes the two circuits:

The repetition or renewal of the act of selling in order to buy, is kept within bounds by the very object it aims at, namely, consumption or the satisfaction of definite wants, an aim that lies altogether outside the sphere of circulation. But when we buy in order to sell, we, on the contrary, begin and end with the same thing, money, exchange-value; and thereby the movement becomes interminable… The simple circulation of commodities – selling in order to buy – is a means of carrying out a purpose unconnected with circulation, namely, the appropriation of use-values, the satisfaction of wants. The circulation of money as capital is, on the contrary, an end in itself, for the expansion of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The circulation of capital has therefore no limits.

In social practice, these two circuits don’t describe two separate institutions or physically distinct processes of circulation, but rather practically distinguishable moments within the same overarching process – a point that allows Marx to open a strategically crucial discussion of how social actors who are engaging with the very same process, might still plausibly emerge from this engagement with radically different practical orientations and subjective perceptions of what the process entails. Marx is using this discussion, in other words, to open up an analysis of a social process that intrinsically entails a proliferation of conflicting perceptions, subjective orientations, and engagements with a core social institution. This is an analytical strategy Marx uses throughout Capital – not something he regards as unique to the analysis of the sphere of circulation: Capital relies heavily on the notion that the same context can be generative of forms of perception, thought, and practice that conflict with one another, but that nevertheless share the common quality of expressing determinate potentials of that context.

Analysing some of the forms of subjectivity that express the potentials of the sphere of circulation, Marx notes the subject position that the capitalist personifies:

As the conscious representative of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a capitalist. His person, or rather his pocket, is the point from which the money starts and to which it returns. The expansion of value, which is the objective basis or main-spring of the circulation M-C-M, becomes his subjective aim, and it is only in so far as the appropriation of ever more and more wealth in the abstract becomes the sole motive of his operations, that he functions as a capitalist, that is, as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. Use-values must therefore never be looked upon as the real aim of the capitalist; neither must the profit on any single transaction. The restless never-ending process of profit-making alone is what he aims at. This boundless greed after riches, this passionate chase after exchange-value, is common to the capitalist and the miser; but while the miser is merely a capitalist gone mad, the capitalist is a rational miser. The never-ending augmentation of exchange-value, which the miser strives after, by seeking to save his money from circulation, is attained by the more acute capitalist, by constantly throwing it afresh into circulation.

The phrasing is important here. Marx does not say that we can predict how groups of empirical people will perceive or engage with the process of circulation by, for example, examining how much money they possess, determining whether they own the means of production, or monitoring how they engage with the process of circulation. His point is instead a definitional one: he says that a possessor of money becomes a capitalist, to the extent that they consciously represent and adopt as their subjective aim, a movement that is described in the text as an objective process – a process that confronts individuals as something beyond their personal control – to which the capitalist then orients subjectively in terms of their ongoing search for profit.

At the beginning of the following chapter, Marx further proliferates the perspectives from which this same social process can be viewed, by pointing out that most participants in the exchange process don’t adopt the perspective of the capitalist, but instead engage with the process as if it were a matter of simple commodity exchange – as if the process of circulation were a process of obtaining determinate use values for consumption. Marx argues:

The form which circulation takes when money becomes capital, is opposed to all the laws we have hitherto investigated bearing on the nature of commodities, value and money, and even of circulation itself. What distinguishes this form from that of the simple circulation of commodities, is the inverted order of succession of the two antithetical processes, sale and purchase. How can this purely formal distinction between these processes change their character as it were by magic?

But that is not all. This inversion has no existence for two out of the three persons who transact business together. As capitalist, I buy commodities from A and sell them again to B, but as a simple owner of commodities, I sell them to B and then purchase fresh ones from A. A and B see no difference between the two sets of transactions. They are merely buyers or sellers. And I on each occasion meet them as a mere owner of either money or commodities, as a buyer or a seller, and, what is more, in both sets of transactions, I am opposed to A only as a buyer and to B only as a seller, to the one only as money, to the other only as commodities, and to neither of them as capital or a capitalist, or as representative of anything that is more than money or commodities, or that can produce any effect beyond what money and commodities can. For me the purchase from A and the sale to B are part of a series. But the connexion between the two acts exists for me alone. A does not trouble himself about my transaction with B, nor does B about my business with A. And if I offered to explain to them the meritorious nature of my action in inverting the order of succession, they would probably point out to me that I was mistaken as to that order of succession, and that the whole transaction, instead of beginning with a purchase and ending with a sale, began, on the contrary, with a sale and was concluded with a purchase. In truth, my first act, the purchase, was from the standpoint of A, a sale, and my second act, the sale, was from the standpoint of B, a purchase. Not content with that, A and B would declare that the whole series was superfluous and nothing but Hokus Pokus; that for the future A would buy direct from B, and B sell direct to A. Thus the whole transaction would be reduced to a single act forming an isolated, non-complemented phase in the ordinary circulation of commodities, a mere sale from A’s point of view, and from B’s, a mere purchase. The inversion, therefore, of the order of succession, does not take us outside the sphere of the simple circulation of commodities, and we must rather look, whether there is in this simple circulation anything permitting an expansion of the value that enters into circulation, and, consequently, a creation of surplus-value. (italics mine)

Marx breaks down further potential perspectives in each chapter, each predicated on a socially plausible form of engagement with this very same process of circulation. He customarily links these perspectives, either in the text or in his notes, with specific figures or intellectual movements that express each perspective. These often rapid fire and gestural links are intended as immanent critiques – as demonstrations that Marx will not dismiss alternative forms of theory as “mere” errors or illusions (a form of abstract negation these competing forms of theory often practice on one another), but will instead grasp them as expressions of determinate dimensions of a shared context Marx is also seeking to theorise. By doing this, Marx begins to set up what he intends as a determinate negation – in the form of a theory of capitalism in which circulation itself is positioned as but a moment in an overarching process.

In these two chapters, he only hints at the perspective his own critique expresses, setting up for the analysis of wage labour to follow:

We have shown that surplus-value cannot be created by circulation, and, therefore, that in its formation, something must take place in the background, which is not apparent in the circulation itself. But can surplus-value possibly originate anywhere else than in circulation, which is the sum total of all the mutual relations of commodity-owners, as far as they are determined by their commodities? Apart from circulation, the commodity-owner is in relation only with his own commodity. So far as regards value, that relation is limited to this, that the commodity contains a quantity of his own labour, that quantity being measured by a definite social standard. This quantity is expressed by the value of the commodity, and since the value is reckoned in money of account, this quantity is also expressed by the price, which we will suppose to be £10. But his labour is not represented both by the value of the commodity, and by a surplus over that value, not by a price of 10 that is also a price of 11, not by a value that is greater than itself. The commodity owner can, by his labour, create value, but not self-expanding value. He can increase the value of his commodity, by adding fresh labour, and therefore more value to the value in hand, by making, for instance, leather into boots. The same material has now more value, because it contains a greater quantity of labour. The boots have therefore more value than the leather, but the value of the leather remains what it was; it has not expanded itself, has not, during the making of the boots, annexed surplus-value. It is therefore impossible that outside the sphere of circulation, a producer of commodities can, without coming into contact with other commodity-owners, expand value, and consequently convert money or commodities into capital.

It is therefore impossible for capital to be produced by circulation, and it is equally impossible for it to originate apart from circulation. It must have its origin both in circulation and yet not in circulation.

We have, therefore, got a double result.

The conversion of money into capital has to be explained on the basis of the laws that regulate the exchange of commodities, in such a way that the starting-point is the exchange of equivalents. Our friend, Moneybags, who as yet is only an embryo capitalist, must buy his commodities at their value, must sell them at their value, and yet at the end of the process must withdraw more value from circulation than he threw into it at starting. His development into a full-grown capitalist must take place, both within the sphere of circulation and without it. These are the conditions of the problem. Hic Rhodus, hic salta!

Reflexive Connections

Tom from Grundlegung has returned from much too long an absence (I’ve missed your voice around these parts!), to join the ongoing discussion of self-reflexivity. Tom points to some of the connections between the two senses of self-reflexivity the rest of us have been trying to distinguish during this conversation. I’m glad someone has written on this, as I had been worrying that, in trying to make clear in this conversation what I mean by “self-reflexive theory“, I was making distinctions that were also occluding the potential to generate these sorts of connections. Tom’s piece both provides his take on the strategic intentions of the positions being distinguished, and then explores one avenue through which one might also get “back” from the notion of “theoretical self-reflexivity” (or “reflexivity”, as I think we are now calling this concept by local convention) to some of the issues Alexei and Gabriel have raised in relation to the more common understanding of the term “self-reflexivity”. Tom argues:

To begin: when NP discusses ‘reflexivity’ then the term is deployed at a meta-theoretic level where it describes a condition of adequacy for theories that can explain how the context interpenetrative with a set of practices (paradigmatically a social field, such as one inclusive of capitalist relations of production) provides both the ground for the reproduction of those practices whilst containing an opening for a change or development (specifically, emancipatory change) in those practices. As I read this general line of thought, the aim is to determine a normative stance — some standards for assessment — that do not float freely of the object of critique; rather, they are to be rooted immanently in their objects. (Hegel attacks the contrasting pure ‘oughts’ in both his earliest works like The Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate as well as his last ones, such as the Preface to the Philosophy of Right.)

A reflexive theory is one that will be able to explain its own role as an element within its analytic field, specifically the way that the very formation of the theory opens up new avenues for critical practice. Non-reflexive theories are thus those prone to forget their own contribution to their explanandum; so while they may be quite competent in characterising the mechanisms or functions that contribute to the reproduction of a set of practices, they ignore the fact that the very attempt to grasp this reproduction of practices, especially if the analytical theory is an especially insightful one that allows us to come to a good understanding of this reproduction, can intensify or disrupt the process of reproduction of practices. A fully reflexive theory will not only proclaim its membership of its own analytic field but will be able to demonstrate how it itself opens (and perhaps closes) critical potentialities. That is, it can show how its analysis of its object (the fact of its analysis, not just its content) does or does not provide a basis for specific changes in our practices — changes that were not even latently potential ones without the formulation of the theory. (In light of Sinthome’s posts on the materiality of writing, I am tempted to say ‘how it provides a material basis for practice.’) This will allow it to avoid an abstract negation that dismisses its object as inadequate without furthermore showing how this inadequacy may be overcome by building upon such things as the very realisation and attendant explanation of why the object is inadequate.

Logically speaking, a reflexive relation is simply one that something bears to itself (e.g. ‘tired cliché’ is a tired cliché). Thus, the meta-theoretic sense of ‘reflexive’ describes a theory that applies to itself. The other sense of ‘reflexive’ that has been in play over at Now-Times is one of self-reflexivity: the relation that the self has to itself. It might appear that there is only a linguistic similarity here then, for initially there seems to be no reason to suppose that the self’s relation to itself has anything much to do with a theory’s relation to itself.

Yet, I take it that the Kantian insistence on self-reflexivity as a condition for knowledge — that I must be able to relate to myself as a condition of entering into cognitive relations with the world — extends to normativity in general; that is, I must be able to relate to myself in a certain way if it is to be intelligible that I am legitimately appraisable for my actions in and attitudes towards the world. Furthermore, the way that I must so relate to myself is of the same form as the meta-theoretic notion of reflexivity. To see meta-theoretic reflexivity as a condition for an adequate critical theory — thereby a norm-bearing and not merely descriptive one — is to suppose that a theory must understand its own capacity to enable new determinate interventions with respect to its objects. A parallel move is, I think, to be found at the heart of the subject. So, a meta-theoretically reflexive critical theory is a structure of beliefs that theorises itself as a condition of its own normative claims being authoritative; where I take it that subject (qua minimally rational agent) is something that understands itself to have the power to determine itself insofar as it can be responsive to purported norms — introducing a possible tension between what it is possible we should do and what we might in fact do — as a condition of its activities being actually norm-governed (and thereby both potentially intentional and also rationally defensible and thereby be themselves authoritative).

That last claim is almost impossibly compressed here. To give a basic hint of what I have in mind, I want to claim that it is a necessary condition for the possibility of a norm being authoritative with respect to a certain activity that the person engaged in that activity can (but not necessarily does, as in constructivism) take themselves to be subject to the authority of that norm. The central consideration here being that it is the possibility of so taking oneself, endowed as we are with the critical faculties of rational agents to contextualise our activities against the background of standards which we can then endeavour to pursue, that is important. It is this capacity to view our activities against a backdrop of norms that fall short of rigid determinations of what we will in fact do that provides a partial ground for norms being actually intelligibly in play at all.

Tom situates these… er… reflections in the context of his own work, which, as he describes:

is coalescing around the compatibility of various broadly Kantian accounts of autonomy and their compatibility with post-Sellarsian understandings of how we can be ‘objectively’ accountable to an ‘external’ world that can exert a normative force on our practices.

Fantastic stuff – go see the original!

I suspect this conversation may also have reached the point where we may need a running tally of contributions. On some level, this conversation has been running between Larval Subjects and this blog for some time now. In its recent incarnation, however, I think the “excuse” for the discussion began with a very brief post here on theoretical pessimism. Sinthome then initiated the conversation proper, with a beautiful post over at Larval Subjects titled “Problems of Self-Reflexivity”, which used Sartre to develop some of my fragmentary points on theoretical pessimism into a potent set of reflections on how to grasp the potential for rupture within a social field. This post provoked a vibrant discussion, which eventually led Alexei over at Now-Times to chime in with “On the Concept of Reflection”, which tried to situate the discussion on the terrain of the conditions of possibility for the self-reflexive subject. I responded with the post “Self-Reflexivity Beyond the Self”, which tried to describe a bit better how I use the term “self-reflexive” to capture a property of a social field, while Gabriel Gottlieb posted a set of reflections of Fichte and the concept of self-reflexivity over at Self and World, arguing that Fichte might provide a means to do what both Alexei and I were trying to do. Alexei then followed up with more reflections on Fichte, which explored the issue of a self-reflexive process that generates products that are also producers, reacting back on the process itself. Fantastic discussions have ranged across all of these blogs – making this one of the most productive and generative cross-blog discussions I’ve seen (of course, I’m biased on this topic… ;-P).

Updated to add: Nate from the fantastic What in the hell…, who has been in this fray in the comments here and at Larval Subjects, has now chimed in back at home, with a set of reflections on the connections – and lack of connections – of this kind of theoretical work and the work of organisation, and between argument, and conviction.

Vague Generalisations about Real Abstractions

So… I’ve been in several conversations recently where I’ve tried to clarify something by mentioning the concept of a “real abstraction”, only to realise that my interlocutor expresses familiarity with the term, but means something very different by it than what I’m trying to convey. As with the concept of “theoretical pessimism”, I understand “real abstraction” in a somewhat technical way – to refer to a form of argument that claims that at least some forms of abstraction should not be understood as the products of a conceptual generalisation, but should instead be understood as a particular kind of entity that is directly, but unintentionally, constituted in collective practice (more on this in a bit). What I’m finding is that the term “real abstraction” has various other technical and non-technical meanings, each more or less closely bound to particular visions of the object, standpoint, and mechanism of critique. I thought I would toss some generalisations onto the blog on the diverse meanings of the term, both to clarify (or further obscure…) what I’ve meant by the term when I’ve used it in other posts here and elsewhere, and as part of a process of deciding whether it causes too much confusion for me to retain this particular phrase.

I’m finding that perhaps the most common interpretation of “real abstraction” that crops up in local conversation, takes the term to signify some sort of superlative abstraction. So the phrase “real abstraction” is understood to be trying to draw attention to concepts that are really, really abstract – by distinction, say, to concepts that are less abstract, and therefore hug more closely to concrete experience. This usage remains very closely bound to the conventional meaning of the term “abstraction” – where an abstraction is a kind of conceptual generalisation – and generally positions “real abstractions” as worse than… er… other kinds of abstractions. It sets up, in other words, a kind of normative privileging of concepts that hug more closely to what it takes to be concrete experience, views abstraction as something a thinking subject effects when reflecting on data (ruling out the possibility, for example, of “abstraction” as a particular kind of immanent structure or an actively and directly generated product of collective practice), and does not consider the possibility that we might miss some aspects of the “real” if we regard the qualitative characteristics of abstract entities solely as a kind of averaging out of the qualitative characteristics of concrete entities.

Even where interlocutors share a more similar “frame” to mine – even where they view a claim about “real abstractions” as an argument that something determinately abstract might be constituted in collective practice – there is a strong tendency to want to equate a “real abstraction” with an illusion, to view a “real abstraction” as a socially constituted form of appearance whose presence is masking some underlying “concrete” reality that critique is meant to uncover. This understanding of “real abstractions” is often put forward by people who see the market (or, sometimes, money) as the quintessential “real abstraction”, and who are interested in criticising the ways in which certain ideals or forms of thought they associate with the market, function to deflect attention away from the actual existence of domination in concrete practice. In this understanding, the forms of thought and practice associated with what is regarded as the “real abstraction” of the market are thus positioned as illusions that need to be unmasked to bring an underlying reality more clearly into view.

There is also a mirror-image position, which also sees a “real abstraction” as something constituted in collective practice, but which places the opposite “charge” on the abstraction: instead of treating the “real abstraction” as an illusion and as the object of critique, this approach views the “real abstraction” as the underlying reality, and sees other social institutions or forms of thought as illusory, or at least as more contingent or particularistic in character. This understanding of a “real abstraction” often arises from forms of critique that see some sociological group – the proletariat, the poor, the marginalised – as a “real abstraction”, where the abstraction is taken to arise because collective practice has placed a particular population into such a position of abject impoverishment or disempowerment or exclusion that they are reduced to what is most essentially, almost biologically (or spiritually), human – and are therefore positioned as the only social group with direct access to something like universal ideals, the only social group whose experiences render them capable of leading a genuinely universal movement for the emancipation of themselves and all other groups.

Okay. Broad brush strokes, I realise. There are many, many theoretical positions that couldn’t easily be lumped into any of these gestural categories. And now that I’ve run through these contradictory understandings of “real abstraction”, I’m beginning to wonder whether I should just drop the term… But before I make this decision, I’ll at least try to gesture at what I mean by the term – if only because I’ve been using it on this blog and in other writings for some time.

The basic idea, for me, behind the concept of a “real abstraction” is the claim that there are at least certain types of abstractions that are not being fully understood when they are interpreted as conceptual generalisations. When an abstraction is treated as a conceptual generalisation, it is being treated as though it arises from a process of subtraction – treated as a residual or a remainder, as whatever is left behind after a certain amount of qualitatively determinate properties has been stripped away in some kind of analytical process. Abstraction is here positioned as a form of pure or abstract negation, lacking its own determinate qualitative characteristics, but containing only those residue characteristics that persist once other attributes have been averaged out or peeled away. By contrast, I would understand the concept of a “real abstraction” to be an attempt to provide a sociological explanation of how at least some abstractions are constituted through collective practice – and are thus available to think, because collectively they are being enacted – they are existent entities constituted in and through collective practice. This process of collective enactment – like all processes of collective enactment – then confers determinate qualitative characteristics which are best understood as actively constituted in their qualitative determinacy, rather than as passively left behind after a process of generalisation away from more concrete characteristics.

From my perspective, even the more sociological approaches mentioned above don’t quite succeed in unfolding this kind of analysis, because they position “real abstractions” asymmetrically in relation to other dimensions of social practice, treating “real abstractions” as either illusions or essences, and therefore as entities that do not exist on the same practical plane as other sorts of social phenomena. This privileged positioning (whether negative or positive) of “real abstractions” tends to facilitate dichotomous visions of critique: visions that view the abstraction as an illusion and as the object of critique, because the abstraction is perceived to have occluded the qualitatively determinate reality of rich, sensuous, concrete existence; or visions that view the abstraction as the reality and as the standpoint of critique, because it reveals what is most essential and universal and unable to be stripped away.

I tend, by contrast, to restrict the term “real abstraction” to a form of analysis that steps outside this dichotomy, by taking seriously the notion that certain things that we experience as “abstractions” are not negativities left behind when everything has been stripped away, but are instead socially-constituted positivities – actively constructed with their own determinate qualitative characteristics generated (unintentionally) in collective practice – representing neither illusion nor essence, but rather alienated potentials. Such potentials are contingent, in that they are the results of collective practices that could well have been different – that, in other periods, seem to have been different – but they are also real, for us, in our time, which has (albeit quite accidentally) brought them into being. Their “abstract” character, however, places these potentials at risk for not being recognised as such – for being mistaken for conceptual generalisation, or for human nature, or for illusion – all interpretations of real abstractions that can be criticised for the ways in which such interpretations impede our ability to seize actively on the positive potentials we have generated in this peculiar form (I say this, realising that the point would need to be developed in significantly greater detail – for present purposes, I’m simply trying to hand wave at the way the concept of a real abstraction might function in a reworking of the concept of social critique, within a framework that rejects the structure of an unmasking and debunking critique).

So… Nice grand claims about the strategic intentions behind a technical term I still haven’t deployed in more than the most gestural way in any actual social theory… ;-P In spite of my criticisms above, a very, very rough sense of what would be involved in deploying the concept of “real abstraction” in something like the sense in which I use it, can be found in some analyses of the market as a “real abstraction”. The argument would go something along the lines of: in one dimension of the social practices that bring markets into being, markets express a genuine, collectively enacted, indifference to the determinate properties of the goods exchanged, the labours used to produce those goods, the purposes for which those goods might be used, etc; in other dimensions of social practice – including other dimensions of the social practices that bring markets into being – these determinate properties are directly and profoundly relevant. The tension between these two dimensions of social practice provides a “real” – or practical – collectively enacted, basis for rendering socially plausible the existence of certain kinds of dichotomous concepts – between exchange and use value, abstract and concrete, etc. Both poles of the dichotomy, however, are equally qualitatively determined by social practice – one pole does not reflect an essence and the other an appearance (although it may be socially plausible for essence-appearance interpretations to arise). Both poles – and the tensions between them – generate determinate potentials, the exploration and expression of which can then provide standpoints for criticism of the ways in which available potentials are being held back or restrained by the existing organising of social life.

To be clear, I offer the example of the market above because I suspect it will be at least somewhat familiar to most readers – it’s not unlikely that people will have read works using something like the technical notion of “real abstraction” I deploy, with the market as the case example. I feel some discomfort with the example, however, as I think that focussing on the market as a “real abstraction” reinforces the tendency to define capitalism in terms of the market, and makes it difficult to understand some periods of capitalist history. My own work focuses instead on the collective constitution of a long-term and non-linear pattern of historical transformation – on this pattern as a “real abstraction” – and can be seen, in some senses, as a critique of approaches that rely on a focus on the market. I’ll leave this issue aside for present purposes, however, since my main goal here is outline various meanings that seem to have attached themselves to the phrase “real abstraction”, and to explore briefly how these different meanings lend themselves to different conceptions of social critique.

Fragment on Theoretical Pessimism

I’ve been invited to present at an event that brings together critical theorists and activists to reflect on the relevance – or lack of relevance – of particular forms of critical theory to contemporary activism. The event won’t take place until early next year – the organisers are still finalising the details of the format and specific theme in consultation with the presenters. I’ll post more specific information to the blog when things are further along. For the moment, I’m just trying to get my head around what I might present, to give the organisers some information they can use when making decisions on format and promotion for the event.

The invitation has me thinking about the concept of theoretical pessimism – and wondering specifically how many current, “living” traditions of critical social theory are not pessimistic. It will already be clear from this question that I must mean the term “theoretical pessimism” in a very specific sense. There are many critical theoretic approaches that seek to ground some potential for emancipatory transformation – in the everyday sense of the word “pessimism”, many theoretical traditions are not pessimistic at all. My question relates more to the somewhat technical meaning of “theoretical pessimism” used in discussions of the trajectory of the Frankfurt School.

In this context, the concepts of theoretical pessimism, self-reflexivity, and socio-historical immanence are intrinsically intertwined. By theorising its own socio-historical context in a way that reveals how that context generates determinate, socially immanent, potentials for its own transformation, the theory becomes self-reflexive. Self-reflexivity, in this framework, therefore means simply that the theory can account for its own existence as a potential generated immanently by the socio-historical context it is analysing. Critical social theory accounts for itself by showing how its own socio-historical context internally generates determinate potentials for transformation, potentials that are then expressed in the ideals or values articulated by the critique. Self-reflexivity is thus intrinsically aligned with – defined in terms of – the theory’s ability to identify determinate, socially immanent, practical potentials for transformation. Within this framework, when a theory cannot identify how a specific socio-historical context generates determinate internal potentials for transformation, it ceases to be self-reflexive or immanent, and becomes a pessimistic theory – a theory whose critical objections to its own social context can no longer be linked with a determinate analysis of how that context might be transformed. This is, in fact, what happened to the first generation of the Frankfurt School.

One thing that is sometimes missed – in part because earlier forms of Marxist theory sometimes attempted to extrapolate some kind of general sociological principle from this vision of immanent critical theory – is that this kind of social critique would only ever be possible if the socio-historical context were to have very specific qualities. There is no reason to assume that all forms of human community would generate determinate internal potentials for some specific form of transformation whose character could potentially be theorised before it occurs: it’s not difficult to imagine scenarios in which something like immanent social critique wouldn’t make sense – scenarios in which change is solely aleatory in structure, or driven by human actors from outside the community being theorised, or catalysed by natural events, etc. The claim that something like an immanent and self-reflexive social critique might be possible, is therefore already a strong claim about the determinate characteristics of the particular society being analysed: only in the idiosyncratic circumstance in which a socio-historical context generates some kind of systematic potential for transformation, would this model of critique make any sense. Again, the first generation Frankfurt School theorists recognised this – and therefore drew the appropriate pessimistic consequences, when their particular theory of how capitalism might generate transformative potentials seemed no longer to apply.

Many forms of critical social theory appear to have stepped away from the vision of immanent critique sketched above – accounting for the existence of critical sensibilities in other ways, if at all, rather than attempting to locate determinate potentials for transformation that provide perspectives or standpoints that the critique expresses. Instead, the socio-historical context is often positioned as the object of critique – perhaps as something that provokes the recognition or mobilisation of certain critical ideals – but not often viewed as constitutive of the qualitative characteristics of critical sensibilities, by generating the potentials for particular kinds of immanent transformation. For this reason, many forms of social theory remain “pessimistic” in the technical sense of not identifying aspects of the socio-historical context that point beyond that context in determinate ways. This level of “pessimism” could be entirely appropriate, if our socio-historical context doesn’t have the strange characteristics required for some kind of systematic internal generation of transformative potentials. What I would like to explore in my presentation, however, are approaches that still try to “cash out” the instinct that something like an immanent and self-reflexive social critique might be possible – approaches that still attempt to conceptualise social critique as an expression of a determinate potential for transformation that is generated within our specific form of social life. More on this, hopefully, when I’m a bit less tired – and apologies for the rough and overgeneralised quality of these preliminary comments, which I’ve tossed here mainly so I don’t lose track of the chain of associations in the beginning-of-term crush.

Truncated Convolutions

Walter Benjamin’s concepts – or, probably more accurately, the concepts I draw out of Benjamin’s work – are often fairly close to the surface in my theoretical writing. I toss out isolated phrases and the occasional extended quote from Benjamin fairly often, as Gary Sauer-Thompson over at Philosophical Conversations recently noticed, picking up on one of the many times I’ve cited Benjamin’s concept that critique involves “brushing history against the grain”. Gary then runs with this notion – using photographic material to capture, and then to lift out of its original context, a moment in the reproduction of one contemporary capitalist context. Riffing off the title of my post, Gary calls this moment a placeholder – and then uses his photography to shift the placeholder from its place and to explore how this shift might equip us to reconceptualise a more active relationship to the process of reproduction – a very Benjaminian move.

While Benjamin often haunts my thoughts, I’ve been thinking about his work more actively recently, as I’ve been working through Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. There are strange and unexpected (to me) points of contact – and perhaps even stranger and more jarring disjoints – between Difference and Repetition and some of the concepts that draw me in Benjamin’s work. My thoughts on these comparisons are still too fresh and unsettled for writing – perhaps I’ll be able to come back to them at a later point. For the moment, I’m finding myself alternatively reading Difference and Repetition, and then setting it aside to flip through The Arcades Project. Probably not the most efficient way to process either author, but I am finding that the process is lending an interesting freshness to elements of Benjamin’s work with which I’ve lived for a long time. When I’ve worked through Deleuze much more thoroughly, I’d like to come back to some of the themes around which my thoughts are currently spinning: both authors’ particularly complex and counter-intuitive understandings of the ontological status of “the past” and its relationship to the “present” and future; a somewhat similar focus on thought as the product of an encounter; slightly different critiques of negation and representation; a different understanding of the term “repetition”, which nevertheless might – might – point to a somewhat similar substantive intention; what seem to be slightly offset appropriations of Leibniz (and a number of other common figures); perhaps – perhaps – wildly divergent assessments of a particular structuration of time; and the uncanny disjoint that emerges from similar concepts understood, in one case, within a social and, in the other, an ontological, frame…

Unfortunately, at this point I have nothing more than notes for notes… Hopefully something more substantive once my thoughts are settled. This may not happen quickly, however: for the moment, I’m enjoying my very, very short break from teaching and administrative responsibilities, and am using this time to… unsettle my thoughts as much as possible, hoping this will provide at least a small and sustained conceptual momentum heading into the new term.