Rough Theory

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Category Archives: Events

Hegel Summer School Next Week

Just a reminder to local readers interested in the Hegel Summer School, that the event is next week (urk!!). Registration forms are available here, and general information about the event is here.

The format of the event has been tweaked somewhat (the website doesn’t yet reflect the most recent changes). I will now be speaking on Friday afternoon, instead of Saturday morning, and we are adding a panel discussion on Saturday afternoon to allow for more discussion of challenges relating to political organisation and mobilisation. The informal Thursday evening drinks and discussion session will provide a brief introduction to the speakers and the event, and give some time for participants to meet one another in a less structured setting. Lots of time and space for discussion is built into the event itself, with papers running around an hour, then a break for coffee and informal discussion, and then around 90 minutes of discussion for each paper.

If I weren’t so tired, I’d likely be getting very nervous around now. 🙂 I’m looking forward to this, though. My talk will synthesise (and, inevitably, abridge) some of the materials I’ve been posting recently here on Hegel and Marx. I’m planning on discussing the motives and then the methodological implications of Hegel’s concept of a “scientific” philosophical system, exploring why this methodology appeals to Marx – and how he considers himself to have “inverted” it in Capital, and then talking a bit about how all this plays out in a theory of misrecognition that suggests certain specific challenges for transformative social movements. In an hour. Hmmm…. Hopefully those of you who attend will be gentle on me. 🙂 I’m very much looking forward to the extended opportunities for discussion, though – it’s very rare to be able to spend so much time on individual papers, and I enjoy spontaneous exchange far far more than talking at people for an hour… 🙂

Hope to see some of you there.

[Update that the talk has now been posted online here, and the audio of the talk is available here.]

Heat to the Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year Traditions

I posted on this last year, but was thinking of it again: a lovely New Year’s tradition that ZaPaper from Chicago-Beijing posted:

A long-held superstition in my family–I’m not sure about others’–is that whatever you do on New Years Day is indicative of what you will be doing all year. We have always have been careful never to have needless arguments or sulky fits, insofar as that is possible, on January 1.

Last year, L Magee tempted me into a midnight post on the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology, which we then read together during January. I’m wondering whether to turn this into a tradition – posting a midnight reflection on the Science of Logic, to open our reading group discussion for this coming year? Or perhaps I should pass this tradition on to LM, who is currently writing on the history of logic?

Random Hegel

The other day, I was looking through Andy Blunden’s “The Meaning of Hegel’s Logic”, which I gather Andy prepared for the first Hegel Summer School back in 1997. I laughed at this comment, which Andy makes in his introduction:

Following Lenin’s advice, we recommend a “materialist reading” of the Logic. That is, where Hegel talks of a “spirit” which expresses or “posits” itself in Nature or human affairs, we read a law or process manifested or expressed by Nature or human activity; when Hegel starts talking about God, we skip to the next paragraph.

I meant to toss the comment up on the blog at the time, but got distracted and forgot. What reminded me was the following comment, from Hegel’s discussion in the Science of Logic of “With What Must Science Begin”:

If, therefore, in the expression of the absolute, or eternal, or God (and God has the absolutely undisputed right that the beginning be made with him) — if in the intuition or thought of these there is implied more than pure being — then this more must make its appearance in our knowing only as something thought, not as something imagined or figurately conceived; let what is present in intuition or figurate conception be as rich as it may, the determination which first emerges in knowing is simple, for only in what is simple is there nothing more than the pure beginning; only the immediate is simple, for only in the immediate has no advance yet been made from a one to an other. Consequently, whatever is intended to be expressed or implied beyond being, in the richer forms of representing the absolute or God, this is in the beginning only an empty word and only being; this simple determination which has no other meaning of any kind, this emptiness, is therefore simply as such the beginning of philosophy. (121)

Something about Hegel’s “and God has the absolutely undisputed right that the beginning be made with him” just kills me (you’ll have to forgive me – I frequently – and sympathetically, as a matter of sheer enjoyment in what he’s doing in the text – think Hegel is hilarious – I realise this reaction is highly idiosyncratic, but I still can’t seem to keep myself from sharing…). And the whole passage reminded me of Andy’s advice.

For those who haven’t seen it yet, the Hegel-by-Hypertext site, part of the ever-useful, has online versions of a number of Hegel’s texts, and links to commentaries and other resources. As long as I’m assembling links, other useful sites for links to Hegel’s works and commentaries are J. Carl Mickelsen’s University of Idaho site (hat tip Self and World), and

Preparing for Fragmentation

So in February I’ll be presenting to the Hegel Summer School, an event that has been taking place for the past ten years, and that brings together activists and academics to discuss specific themes in contemporary critical theory. The format involves a sort of casual introductory event the evening before the formal presentations, at which presenters and other participants can meet one another in a less structured setting, and then two days of presentations and discussions – only four presenters, with half a day devoted to each presentation (one hour for the presentation, a break for tea, and then something like ninety minutes for discussion). The aim is to allow enough time, and an appropriate format, to make it possible for the presenters to demystify some of the theoretical material often sequestered off in academic spaces, and also to make it possible for all participants to engage in meaningful discussion about the possible connections or disconnects between “academic” theory and other forms of politically engaged practice.

This year’s theme is “Solidarity or Community? Philosophy and Antidotes to Fragmentation”. The title of my presentation is intended to be “Fighting for what we mean: Reflections on the unfinished project of critical theory” – which sounds very interesting, except that I haven’t written the presentation yet, so we’ll see if I can live up to my own title… ;-P My rough intention is to outline the idea of an immanent reflexive critical theory (in the sense I tend to use on the blog) then, given the traditional Hegelian orientation of this event, discuss how understanding a little bit about Hegel, and Marx’s relationship to Hegel, can help us appropriate Marx in a meaningful way to connect a critical theory to potentials for mobilisation. I then want to spend much of my time on the question of why it can be structurally difficult to “fight for what we mean” – using this theme to say a bit about how I understand Marx’s take on potentials for misrecognition “built in” to the reproduction of capital. I’m slightly concerned that this may not hit directly enough on the “solidarity or community” theme, so I may need to find room somehow to explain the ways in which the whole question of social fragmentation and integration is a pivot point on which political economy (and then, later, sociology) turns – such that both Hegel and Marx are trying to provide a different sort of response to this problem than the political economists were intending to do. Given that I’m two months away from presenting, I still have a great deal to work out, in terms of what I want to say, and how I plan to say it…

At any rate: so why am I writing about this now, you might ask? Well, the presenters have been asked to recommend some short, accessible, topical readings that can be recommended to participants who want a bit of specific background prior to attending the event. I need to put some recommendations together soon, and I’m simply drawing a blank on what might be useful. Some selections from the first chapter of Capital probably make some sense, but offhand nothing else is coming to mind. So I thought I would toss the concept out, in case something immediately springs to anyone else’s mind. If I’m understanding correctly, the idea is that the readings should prime participants to engage more actively with the presentations, by giving background, or clarifying terms, or providing an example of the sorts of theory discussed, or similar. I’m open to suggestions 🙂

So My Laptop Died…

exploded Dell laptop Well, it didn’t die quite this dramatically – it’s been more a process of slow decline, which reached a certain point of perfection the evening before we presented in Tassie, where the machine simply refused to recharge any more. It adds an interesting, examination-like intensity to conference presentations, knowing that the only tweaks you can make to your talk, must be made within the remaining 90 minutes of your current battery life. It’s entirely possible the laptop gremlins had my best interests in mind – certainly my dead laptop ensured that I got far more sleep, the evening before the presentation, than I think L Magee was able to rationalise with a fully-functional laptop at his disposal.

In any event, traveling back to Melbourne, I had high hopes that the problem would be something simple and inexpensive – maybe the power supply or battery. But no, it’s major – of the sort that it makes more sense to purchase something new, and thus of the sort that causes one to spend an entire evening researching what new toys have come on the market in the intervening years since one has last shopped for a laptop. I think I’ve found what I’m after, and will of course now spend the morning calling around to various places, clarifying ambiguities in specs and such and, if this is successful, no doubt spend the better part of the next couple of days configuring the new machine so that it’s ritualistically prepared for this summer of intensive dissertation writing. I lost no data in the demise of the old laptop, so this is more an opportunity to prune: what from that old machine really needs to be reincarnated in the new?

All of this is by way of saying that my online time has been and will continue to be somewhat limited over the next few days. My backup desktop at the university – a default machine that I inherited with my current office – is bolted to a desk in a position that sits very far back from where I have to sit to type on it, placing the screen an uncomfortable distance from my near-sighted self. And anyone who tried to read along with my response to Andrew Montin’s question yesterday, will also realise that the desktop’s keyboard is prone (at least, when confronting my laptop-conditioned typing reflexes) to duplicating some letters, while omitting others (trust me, I caught far more of these than made their way through to the published comment).

I’d like to write something following up on Andrew’s questions, looking into Brandom’s critique of “I-we” conceptions of the social, his references to history, his appeals to “the theorist” at key points in his argument – and, basically, open up the question of how immanent and reflexive Brandom can actually be seen to be. These were originally the sorts of points with which I had thought of concluding the ASCP presentation, and which, rightly or wrongly, I cut for purposes of time, but which I’d like to raise for discussion here. Andrew has opened these questions himself [er… perhaps I should say: Andrew has asked questions which have reminded me of these questions – perhaps not quite the same thing – certainly from Andrew’s point of view… ;-P], which hopefully suggests we were on the right track, in at least a rough sense, in wanting to raise these issues, in tandem with the vexed question of how Brandom understands “objectivity” and the notion of how our discursive practice opens the space for our “accountability” to dimensions of the world that do not depend on our perception or acknowledgment for their existence. I may wait, though, to write on these things, until I have a keyboard that doesn’t make me feel like I’m stuttering. (Of course, the new laptop keyboard may have its own issues – I therefore hereby blame all errors in my posts for the next several months – the conceptual, as well as the typographical – on whatever machine I happen to be purchasing to replace my sadly-defunct Dell…)

[Note: Image @2006 The Age, URL:,0.jpg%5D

Hobart Roundup

The conference just finished, with the final day including: some excellent presentations (as in all other days of the conference); an AGM for the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy, which has existed as an informal organisation for some years, but which is this year incorporating itself as a formal body, which led to some interesting organisational discussions; and a fantastic, provocative closing panel on the future of continental philosophy that, for an interloper like me, was incredibly useful, quite aside from the issues officially being debated, in providing background information on the history and institutional organisation of philosophy in Australian universities.

I found myself sketching a number of notes during the final day in particular, relating to how to explain “what I do” in terms that might be intelligible to other people (of course, this just means that I’ll get back to Melbourne, try to talk to a sociologist, and find that now I’m making no sense to that discipline… ;-P). It’s a funny feature of a conference like this, how much it makes me feel like a sociologist – at the same time as I enjoy and believe that I follow the papers and the discussion, I inevitably find myself wincing at how “sociological” my own material sounds compared to anything else I was hearing. If I were attending a sociology conference, of course, I’d be feeling like a philosopher or an historian… Such is interdisciplinary life…

I was amused to find myself fielding the following questions over and over again at the conference:

First, when people learned we were presenting on Brandom (and assuming the reaction to this wasn’t “who?”), the question was: “Are you presenting on the big book?” Answer: yes, indeed, we read the big book – and, in fact, have also read the “little” book, which, for some currently unreconstructable reason, motivated us to tackle the big book… Unfortunately, I also read what appears to be the unknown book, at least to most folks attending this conference – but only after we had presented our paper (for some reason, this struck me as a logical form of leisure activity after the presentation – don’t ask…). In that book, I found what seems to be a relatively clear answer to some of the questions LM and I had been debating with one another before our presentation, debates which led to much last-minute revising on both our parts, in the hope of being a bit clearer about what we weren’t certain we yet understood. This whole experience suggests to me that, next time around, I should perhaps try to read, not only the “big” book, but indeed all the books, before scoping a presentation topic… ;-P

I should also note that L Magee seemed somewhat displeased by my efforts to reassure people that the “big” book perhaps wasn’t quite as difficult as it seems on first glance: some first impressions, apparently, are best left undeconstructed… ;-P

The second question we consistently received – more of a startled observation, really – came bursting out when people learned where we’re currently studying: “Really?! I didn’t know they had a philosophy department!” *shuffle shuffle* Yes, well… There might be a reason for that…

Onto other topics:

For those wanting something substantive to read, Nate has a question up at what in the hell…, which relates to how “my” Marx – the Marx I’m claiming becomes an immanent, reflexive critical theorist – maps onto more standard periodisations used in Marx scholarship: assuming that it’s plausible to think of Marx as an immanent reflexive critical theorist (which, I realise, some readers may find to require a bigger leap than others), is this interpretation something that can be plausibly applied to his entire corpus? If not, when did his work begin to express recognisably immanent reflexive characteristics? When did his work most completely express these characteristics? How would this map on to other ways of interpreting the periodisation of Marx’s corpus?

I’m very tired at the moment and, tiredness aside, I’m not sure my answer to this question is as “strong” as it perhaps should be. I’m comfortable reading the first volume of Capital as an immanent reflexive critique in the sense in which I use this term. I see some aspects of Capital as critical of some earlier positions Marx would have held – as a sort of self-diagnosis or self-critique, of what I think Marx comes to characterise as insufficiently historicised positions. So I see him as retaining a great deal from his earlier work, but only by transforming it into a much more historically specified perspective made available immanently within the context he is criticising.

I tend to see the Grundrisse as a major transition point, where Marx shifts to a more explicitly immanent perspective – but I’m not an expert on the evolution of Marx’s thought, and so this is an impressionistic position. There are moments in earlier works that are very consistent with what Marx does in Capital. There are also, just to keep things interesting, moments in Capital that aren’t consistent with what I’m claiming Marx is doing in Capital. I tend to read these moments as eddies in and around a main argumentative current – and to interpret them variously as vestiges of earlier positions (Marx often lifts passages from earlier works into Capital – sometimes, I think, being so fond of a formulation that he doesn’t fully reconsider how it might need to be worked to be adequate to its transplanted context), or incautious polemical statements, or conjunctural passages where Marx seems to have a very specific context in mind, without explicitly marking that context. Of course, it also doesn’t necessarily trouble me that there should be inconsistencies: I’m trying to explore what the work can suggest about a particular potential for theoretical work, rather than claiming perfection or completion in the realisation of this potential.

I haven’t done sufficient work to feel confident about what I think Marx does after publishing the first volume of Capital. I read the second and third volumes as compatible with the way I read volume one, although the incomplete nature of these works means that the sort of careful textual unfolding I’ve been doing with the first volume, wouldn’t be able to proceed in exactly the same way: the form of presentation is muddier, as are a number of substantive theoretical issues. Marx spends his final years doing intensive anthropological studies, and it would be extremely interesting to look into whether any of that reacts back on what he then thought would be required for an adequate critical theory – but this issue remains something that I’m curious about, but have never looked into directly.

Apologies for not being more coherent on this – it’s hitting me as I type how tired I am from the conference. Time, I think, for me to go play in Hobart, and let others say what they think about this question.

Transforming Communication

I’ve cut and pasted the ASCP conference paper on Habermas and Brandom below the fold, for those interested. The process of preparing for this paper has been interesting, among other things, in shaking out certain “what the hell is going on there?” questions that L Magee and I both share in relation to Brandom’s work – while these questions, and our debates around them prior to the presentation, led us to recast slightly what we said at this event, the material posted below the fold doesn’t clearly indicate those areas where we have open and active questions about Brandom’s project: when both of us are back in Melbourne, we’ll hopefully have time to put a few of those issues up on the blog, through some follow-up posts on Making It Explicit.

This particular talk hugged very close to the terms of a debate between Habermas and Brandom, and also provided a lot of background information that might not be as useful to folks who regularly read things here. Some of this background material – particularly on Brandom – suffers from code switching problems: those are my fault, as I wrote those sections of the piece, and so I’ll apologise for trampling all over Brandom’s vocabulary (and, likely, his framework as well).

We are actually intending to develop a more polished and rigorous article out of this, so critical comments and questions would be extremely helpful, for those who have an interest in this sort of material. (Note that, as we had a generous 40 minute allocation for speaking, the piece is somewhat long!) Read more of this post

Change of Scenery

I’m away to Hobart today for the ASCP conference, where L Magee and I are apparently co-presenting something called “Transforming Communication: Habermas and Brandom in Dialogue” – first I’ve heard of it, but then I’m always the last to know…

I’m not sure what the net access situation will be from the conference, so things may be a bit quiet around here until next week. Apologies for not getting something up on Brandom before I left – I will definitely be putting some things up once I’m back.

Just to give folks something new to look at while I’m away, the website design, which has been more or less the same since Rough Theory was first created back in early 2005, has now itself been transformed. The main idea is to make the text more readable – hopefully the new design will at least achieve that. But feel free to let me know if the new look doesn’t work, if you have suggestions for improving the design (any pet peeves you’ve been wishing to mention about the site? here’s your chance!), or if something breaks because of the change. Those who find the whole thing simply unacceptable can use the theme switcher in the right column to shift the site back to its old look.

Wish L Magee and me luck in Tasmania! Take care all.

What in the hell…

did you make me do, Nate?

I’ll be blaming you when I’m not sleeping tonight… ;-P

What I’ve done here is what I sometimes also do with L Magee (who will, no doubt, be glowering at me for working on this, rather than on Brandom…) – which is to provide your comments in full, in blue text, with my responses interspersed in black. This probably isn’t the most systematic way to respond, but it hopefully increases the chances that I won’t completely drop a major point. A lot of the responses aren’t very adequate – sometimes intrinsically, because the questions are too complicated to deal with adequately without their own full treatment, sometimes extrinsically, because I’m a bit tired and, particularly toward the end, just felt increasingly fuzzy and unclear, and so cut some responses short, hoping I’ve at least written enough to justify claiming to have tossed the ball back into your court… ;-P

For those reading on: since this is a long response to a substantive post, I’ll put the whole thing below the fold. If you haven’t read Nate’s original post, do that first, as I chop his post into pieces in order to respond to it; he was responding to my conference talk here.

Also, I notice as I’m preparing to post this that a conversation has been going on over at what in the hell… on this – I’ll just flag briefly here that I haven’t read that conversation (I wrote this post offline, and am just cutting and pasting it into the blog), let alone addressed whatever it says – that conversation I will need to pick up on over the weekend because, having written this, I’m definitely grounded and not allowed to come out to play again until my homework’s done.

Below the fold for the conversation… (which, I should also add, is rather dramatically unedited – urk!!) Read more of this post