Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Interdisciplinary

I Wonder Sometimes Too…

Random wanders around the net bring me to strange places… I can’t even remember the trail that led me to Cosma Shalizi, a cogent writer on self-organisation and complexity whose notebooks provide excellent accessible introductions and pointers to reference materials on these and other topics. As I was browsing around, I saw that Shalizi at some point stumbles across Adorno, and simply isn’t sure what to do with him (although he does come up with perhaps the best one-line summary of The Positivist Dispute that I’ve ever seen):


03 Oct 1994 12:00

What in Hell is he saying? (According to Popper, nothing of interest; the dismissal was mutual.)

See also: Frankfurt School; Russell Jacoby; Superstition

* To read: The Authoritarian Personality
* The Culture Industry

I particularly love the cross-reference to “Superstition”.

Random Thoughts on Difference and Consensus

I’m thinking at a positively glacial pace at the moment, distracted by endless marking and other matters. In the strange half-life of thought that has resulted from this, I’m finding various fragments of recent discussions bouncing off of one another in my memory – largely random, but I think there’s an associative connection somewhere there. I won’t be able to tease out any useful connection here, but perhaps I can preserve a few of the associations for later, more productive, reflection.

A couple nights ago, L Magee poked and prodded me away from my marking to attend a very nice presentation on Habermasian theory, which was followed by a very productive discussion. Strangely, I’m finding that the issue that occupied my attention on the night – a debate over the role of anthropological universals in Habermas’ framework – is not what seems to keep to popping into my thoughts since then. Instead, what my thoughts keep returning to is a phrase used repeatedly by the speaker during both the formal presentation and the subsequent discussion – the claim that Habermas’ framework is designed to illuminate “how can we talk to one another, instead of using violence”. The speaker was suggesting that, by grounding the potential for consensus, Habermas’ approach has also grounded the potential to coordinate our collective lives without violence – positing that these two processes are one and the same, such that grounding one necessarily grounds the other.

The final question of the night was a passionate riposte from a Lacanian critic, challenging the opposition of communication and violence that had structured the talk, pointing to the risk of violence within acts of communication, and challenging the assumption that all dimensions of human interaction and experience could be rationally grasped without a remainder that would escape such a process. The speaker responded by noting the similarity of this position with Adorno’s, but argued that Habermas viewed the positing of such a remainder as a concept pointing tacitly to an an sich – and therefore still bound to a subject-object dualism Habermas rejects. In this reading, transparency evidently follows from the rejection of the subject-object dualism – and the potential for transparency is then posited as the key to the transcendence of violence. The evening concluded with these thoughts still ringing in the air.

For the moment, I’ll leave aside any kind of thorough analysis of this exchange, or of the event as a whole. I don’t personally believe that a move beyond subject-object dualism necessarily entails some sort of claim to universal transparency, or that attempts to speak about the non-identity within identity, as Adorno might have phrased the concept of a remainder, are necessarily gestures toward an an sich. I’ll leave these points aside, however, as I don’t believe this is why my thoughts keep returning to this final exchange. Instead, I think that something about this exchange is reminding me of discussion threads that have floated around this corner of the blogosphere recently, particularly in a series of comments relating to our capacity to desire difference. It may seem slightly perverse to group together a set of discussions about whether it is possible to desire difference, with the issue of whether it is desirable to achieve Habermasian consensus, but this seems to be where my, admittedly rather tired and disjoint, associations are leading at the moment… The common connection seems to be a certain underlying question, revolving around the issue of whether some new kind of personal or intersubjective connection is really what is at stake, when we contemplate what insights recent historical experiences might have allowed us to achieve.

The discussion of the capacity to desire difference originated with a powerful personal reflection by Sinthome at Larval Subjects:

Of course I can say abstractly that I desire difference, that I aim for difference, that I would like to promote difference. But the simple fact that I, for the most part, encounter each and every person that I talk to as being mad reveals, I think, the truth. I confuse the symptoms of others– or better yet, the sinthomes of others, their unique way of getting jouissance –with insanity. I am confusing difference with madness. What I am interpreting as madness– in my bones, in my gut, in the fibers of my being –is in fact difference. And, of course, if I think all of you are mad in your desires, your fixations, your obsessions, your persistant fears, themes, and anxieties, then this must mean that I believe myself to be sane. That’s right, I must believe myself to be normal and healthy. Yet in reflecting on my day to day life, with the way I obsess, the things that I fixate on, the dark fantasies that sometimes inhabit me, the way I don’t allow myself to sleep or enjoy, the varied forms of abuse I heap on my body, and so on, I can hardly say that I am a model of health. No, I don’t have a particularly nice sinthome. I don’t suppose that this is a sinthome that many would want or care to exchange with me. Of course, as Lacan says in Seminar 23: The Sinthome, we are only ever interested in our own symptoms… Which is another way of saying that we never hear the symptoms of others. The symptoms of others are always filtered through our own symptoms.

Perhaps this is “progress”. Perhaps the fact that it is dawning on me that what I so often consider a bit of madness in other persons is really difference or an encounter with otherness qua otherness, is in a way, a traversing of the fantasy, such that I’m recognizing that the frame through which I view the world is just that: a frame. Yet no matter how ashamed I am to admit it as it thoroughly undermines any “theory cred” I might posses (which is scant, to be sure), I wonder if I will ever be able to desire difference. It is one thing to recognize that what one takes as madness is an alternative organization of jouissance. It is quite another thing to find the other’s jouissance tolerable or desirable.

Joseph Kugelmass then picked up on these personal reflections, spinning them in a more political and social direction, and asking whether difference is something that needs to be desired – at least in its substantive manifestations – or whether the issue is more that difference needs to become instead something like an object of indifference:

I was reminded of a marvelous paraphrase of The Republic, from Jacques Derrida’s book on democratic states, Rogues:

[In a democracy one finds] all sorts of people, a greater variety than anywhere else. Whence the multicolored beauty of democracy. Plato insists as much on the beauty as on the medley of colors. Democracy seems—and this is its appearing, if not its appearance and its simulacrum—the most beautiful, the most seductive of constitutions. Its beauty resembles that of a multi- and brightly colored garment. The seduction matters here; it provokes; it is provocative in this “milieu” of sexual difference, where roués and voyous roam about. (26)

In his own roundabout fashion, Derrida follows Plato’s example, but inverts him: Derrida will desire the presence of rogues and vagabonds, will insist roguishly on seduction and shiftlessness, and will hint at debaucheries and even at insurrections. All of which confirms, for us, that democracy is, in LS’s apt phrase, a process of desiring the difference of the Other.

I wonder whether it is reasonable to establish a democracy on these grounds; or whether, in fact, democracy is a best understood as a matter of indifference….

Thus one discovers, at the heart of the democratic principle, not the spectacle of seductive differences, but rather the matter of indifference, as the phrase is used in everyday conversation. It does not mean insensibility, or a lack of interest in what other people volunteer. It is simply a limit placed on what concerns me. I cease expecting others to be fully transparent to me, and I cease to expect them to create environments in which my beliefs predominate. This is the essence of the right to privacy, of toleration, and of the fair exercise of authority.

Interestingly, with this final paragraph Joseph’s concerns react back on the Habermasian project as much as they might on Derrida. Joseph here suggests that perhaps the desire to achieve consensus and the desire to value specific forms of difference might equally involve too great a mutual implicatedness in one another’s lives, too strong a drive to establish an intersubjective connection. Instead, Joseph seems to suggest, what is needed is a greater sense of boundaries between ourselves and our desires, and the selves and desires of others. There’s a certain irony in this position, from a Habermasian perspective – a lovely suggestion that perhaps it’s the systems world after all, with its posited ability to coordinate the consequences of human actions without consensus, that might provide the model for an emancipatory politics – however alienated the form in which this model has become historically manifest…

I’ll apologise here to both Joe and Sinthome, as I’m not trying at all to suggest that either of them was trying to think such thoughts – I’m not even certain that I think such thoughts. For present purposes, I’m simply trying to tease out what’s been nagging me about these various conversational strands – why my tired thoughts seem to have grouped them, as though they might be striking at some common problem. I’m very conscious that these reflections may not have managed to achieve even this modest goal.

Blogopalypse Now

Mostly Harmless is at it again – gathering together the various conversational strands of the cross-blog discussion of contemporary apocalypticism from a few months back, and adding some new voices. I had intended to try to write something new for the event, but find myself strangely too busy at the moment for the end of the world – if only they could schedule these cataclysms further in advance… Anyone missing substantive content around here lately might be interested in my original intervention into this discussion – which, like most of my interventions into cross-blog discussions, was a tangent, in this case avoiding the topic of apocalypticism altogether, but exploring a few themes relating to the connections between sociology and psychology in Adorno’s (and Sinthome’s!) versions of critical theory. Mostly Harmless provides many more links (including some to summary posts here) to earlier and later rounds of the discussion: note that, unlike me, most of the people who originally contributed to this discussion actually said something about apocalypticism in contemporary culture… Enjoy!

Ontology Interests [Updated x2]

For those who have been curious about L Magee’s project, particularly if you’ve had a look and are still wondering what it is all about, I note that an introduction has been now posted over at schematique. Armed with the new information this introduction provides, I logged in to have a play, and am currently contemplating what to enter into my profile. Like the (sorely missed) “destroy” button, the profile screen offers all kinds of outlets for my anarchic impulses. There is a very large free response space, for example, where I can list my “ontology interests”. I’m wondering whether the appropriate answer for someone like me should be (with a nod to rob) “that there be none” or “prefer epistemology, myself”…

I also love the help information on this page: it’s not every day you see help for a profile that explains:

Only the username and password fields are obligatory. Other fields are used to add metadata to your ontology

But what if my ontology interest is “avoiding metadata”? What if I like my ontologies neat?

Also, although this seems somehow oddly appropriate, given my interest in self-reflexivity, should I have been able to do this: Read more of this post

Huis Clos

orange. continues to hold this blog’s methodology slam title, offering a new interpretation of what’s really going on, for all who have been confused by L Magee’s ontology-matching experiment: orange. suggests that it’s later than we think. What LM has been calling a “pre-alpha” software development phase is no such thing: in reality, the software is fully developed, and the experiment’s on us!!! The cat’s out of the bag now, LM: admit it – you’re just studying what academics do when you throw them out of their comfort zone, and place them in a state of confusion: do we bluff, nod sagely, and pretend that we know what’s going on? Do we lash out and start tossing citations? How confusing does the environment actually have to be, before we fess up and admit we have no idea what’s going on?

The Self-Reflexive Defense [Updated x 3]

Long Endgame: White wins in 255 moves.Scott Eric Kaufman has been teasing us for a while now, in various settings, with the fact that he has been working on a piece on the history of theory in the ’70s and ’80s. He has now posted a draft of the piece at Acephalous – shorn, apparently, of its conclusion – and is inviting comments: head on over, if you haven’t already had a look, as the piece is both interesting in its own terms, and also provides the potential for a much more grounded discussion of some of the substantive issues that shoot through the cross-blog “theory wars”.

As always seems to happen with me, my own reaction to this piece is somewhat side on and arguably not terribly relevant to what Scott is trying to do. I liked Scott’s draft: it’s well written and structured, offers a cogent critique of the limitations and distorting effects of a certain form of socialisation into theoretical work, and builds toward recommendations for the creation of new institutional spaces for interdisciplinary exchange oriented toward the testing of theoretical concepts – recommendations that I think are sound and that I would wholehearedly endorse. So on the level of direct and immediate response to the piece, I have very little substantive to add.

Instead, I found myself thinking back on a series of comments Scott made at Long Sunday, in the most recent edition of the “theory wars” debate. In that discussion, Scott gestured toward what I would call his “standpoint of critique” – outlining some normative standards for making judgments about theoretical approaches, and gesturing toward an explanation for how he would “ground” those standards – how he would self-reflexively account for and justify such normative standards, not by relativising them as individual idiosyncracies, but as collectively available forms of critical thought. While reading his draft, I found myself thinking about how it might manifest the positions he outlined in the Long Sunday discussion – and, especially, wondering whether thinking through some of the implications of that standpoint might cast some of the claims he makes in his draft in a slightly different light.

What I’d like to do here is think around a few of these issues very briefly – not with critical intention, but in an exploratory, open-ended way. I should also note that I fully recognise the dangers of trying to pull someone’s theoretical position out of a rapid-fire online debate, so my goal here is not to hold Scott to the positions he outlined in the Long Sunday discussion – I don’t make any assumptions that he regards these gestural comments as the best articulations of his views, or even that I have understood his statements as he intended them. My goal is more to use Scott’s intervention into this recent debate as a convenient touchstone for thinking through some of the issues that arise when we engage in normative judgments of competing theoretical approaches.

Note that, in trying to reconstruct Scott’s position for purposes of this post, I’ll pull some of Scott’s statements out of the order in which they unfolded in the discussion – Long Sunday doesn’t seem to let me link to individual comments, so apologies if this structure of presentation is a bit confusing for anyone trying to track back to the original context. Apologies, as well, that lack of time on my end doesn’t allow a more adequate discussion of these issues, which are both interesting and important, and deserve a more thorough and adequate treatment than I’ll currently be able to provide.

I want to start by drawing attention to Scott’s delightful response to a critic who complained about Scott’s use of a “historicist gambit” to reach for an outside normative perspective from which to pass judgment on specific kinds of theory. With characteristic cleverness, Scott picked up on the term and wielded it to explain the theoretical strategy underlying his approach:

“Historicist gambit” is a good way to characterize it, only in the chess instead of colloquial sense: I play the Historicist gambit knowing that it’ll require certain sacrifices be made; increase the likelihood of certain positions over others; &c. I play this game because I think it’s what’ll best allow me to “win,” i.e. accurately describe the object before me, be it a poem, novel, intellectual trend, &c. I aware of the price I pay and have accepted to play within the limits I’ve imposed upon myself; in short, I know it’s a gambit and what that entails.

The alternative, in my experience, has been to fetishize immanence and make arguments about the relation of one body of thought to another as if they existed outside institutions, as if theoretical work transpired in a Platonic realm of Ivory Towers (to borrow from Jeff Williams). It doesn’t, and never has. Institutional forces have always existed, always deformed thought, and a proper institutional history accounts for both the interplay of ideas and the context in which that interplay took place. To do the latter, you’re forced to play the Historicist Gambit.

Against another critic who objected that Scott’s version of historicisation was a form of critical “relegation”, Scott demurs:

Not really. It acknowledges the fate of all things to become, you know, historical. Ignoring the longue durée in favor of a radical presentism warps any examination, regardless of the object. Now, the durée here may not actually be all that longue, so to speak, but the principle remains the same.

And, in another exchange, Scott argues that his approach offers a critical standpoint outside of, but relevant to, the theoretical approaches that are the objects of his critique:

You decline to answer your own hypothetical question, mourning a foreclosure without considering the claims you made earlier — namely, that certain groups are constituted by their internal debates…

In other words, this post seems like little more than an attempt by the trees to declare where the forest ends. Which is fine. Always happens. However, the trees need a little humility, need to recognize that those outside the forest may have some insight into where it ends — may, in fact, have a perspective the trees can’t even imagine.

Not fun thoughts, I know, but there’s no escaping them. History will happen to us all, one day.

Wonderful, condensed statements – let’s see if we can unpack at least a few of their implications. I take the last statement to indicate that Scott is, in fact, looking for a standpoint – a position from which a phenomenon can be judged. He seems somewhat uncomfortable with the notion that his standpoint might be a normative one – repeatedly attempting to sidestep this issue by appealing to concepts like the adequacy of his analysis to its object, or some notion of either pragmatic grasp or sober factual accuracy. Personally, I don’t think this sidestep is necessary – trying to locate a standpoint that enables you to see what an object “is”, or to judge a theoretical approach based on whether it grasps a dimension of experience adequately, is simply making a normative judgment with reference to a tacit ideal of truth. The desire to make such judgments is, in my opinion, nothing to be ashamed of – and trying to downplay the intrinsically judgmental aspect of this approach can in my opinion have only negative consequences – both in terms of undermining our own ability consciously to reflect on, and refine, our ideals, and in terms of causing the negative reactions of others – who feel criticised, and rightly – to appear to be unmotivated and unreasonable, when in fact these reactions make perfect sense as responses to the sting of the critique. If, as Scott suggests, this is a game – a strategy – then surely it is a critical one – and we therefore owe it to ourselves and to those we criticise to articulate our own normative standards as explicitly as possible – and to defend those standards by providing a plausible account for why anyone else should embrace them.

It is at this point, though, that Scott’s “game” metaphor – with its tacit Weberian imagery that suggests that other standpoints may be as readily chosen and defended as analytical means, if we have pledged fealty to a different set of substantive ends – begins to appear in tension with the sorts of judgments he seems to want to make. Those judgments seem to involve some notion that things change over time – and that an “adequate” analysis must somehow be able to capture this historical dimension of its object. They involve some notion of self-reflexivity: “history will happen to us all” – a statement that presumably captures the theorist/historian, as well as the object of their analysis, and suggests the need for a self-reflexive application of normative standards and analytical techniques to the person undertaking a critical analysis of theoretical approaches.

Those judgments also seem to involve a notion that there is some context to which a theorist/historian can achieve access that transcends the concrete social relationships embodied in institutions – I say this realising that the claim may sound slightly ironic, as Scott makes strong argumentative claims about the need to locate knowledge within institutions, but I regard this as a position required by Scott’s strong assertion of self-reflexivity: if we’re all caught up in history, and if we reject the notion that thought might bounce off against other thought in some kind of ungrounded Platonic space, then we cannot think or behave – at least if we value consistency – as though our own thought escapes this frame. If we find that we can “see through” or gain some “outside” perspective on the limitations or distortions caused by particular institutions, then this perspective must also somehow be “inside” our historical context in some broader sense – suggesting that there is some position that is both historically embedded, and yet transcendent of particular institutional contexts.

If Scott were asserting incommensurability – if he weren’t expecting for his critique to persuade, to appeal to normative standards others could in principle understand – this self-reflexive standard could be met by some notion of duelling institutional contexts: Scott caught up in his, the objects of his criticism caught up theirs, and Scott’s critical analysis a sort of performance or enactment of his institutional space, rather than something aimed at meaningful and mutual engagement with his interlocutors. I take it, however, that Scott does intend to engage in some form of mutual interaction – and that he does posit, if only very tacitly, the existence of some level of historical context that makes such an engagement plausible.

This tacit view is reflected, I would suggest, in some of the metaphors Scott uses in the Long Sunday debate – where, for example, he criticises those caught up in the trees, from the standpoint of someone standing outside the forest – suggesting that he somehow feels he stands “outside” what he analyses critically – or recognises tacitly that his position might require some notion of a standpoint not caught up in the institutional space that is the object of its critique, to make sense of the form of argument he puts forward. If we combine this notion that there is some standpoint that transcends particular institutions – thus rendering them permeable to our critical gaze – with the notion that all things are historical, and that the theorist/historian are themselves caught up in the same sorts of historical processes they also want to analysis, then we end up with a tacit notion that our critique is unfolding within a somewhat complex historical context: a context that, on the one hand, gives us the ability to perceive certain distorting effects of institutional spaces while, on the other, provides us with access to some standpoint that is not fully encompassed by those same institutional spaces, and from which those institutions could therefore be judged, in ways where the validly of the judgment has at least some potential to be understood by those “inside”. This approach doesn’t mean, however, that the theorist/historian stands outside of history, or of context – history will happen to all of us – but rather that they are applying a perspective offered by one dimension of an overarching historical context, to perceive, make sense of, and judge some of the tendencies visible in a different dimension of that same historical context.

So we find ourselves in the position where critics – and this was manifest in a number of the responses Scott received in the Long Sunday discussion – demand: Historicist! Embed thyself! – and then take the failure to do this as a sign of the invalidity or bad faith of the original critique. My position is that this is a fair call – not in the sense that I take Scott’s critique to be invalid or in bad faith, but in the sense that the historically-embedded, self-reflexive nature of normative ideals invoked by this approach does, in fact, make it incumbent on us to “close the loop” and apply to ourselves the same sorts of analytical strategies we apply to others – and to do this in such a way that we can account for the normative standards to which we appeal. When we fail to close the loop, we appear to be removing ourselves from the frame – asserting a privileged position that others, quite understandably, wonder why they can’t just claim for themselves. If we don’t want this to happen, I suspect we need to eliminate the position – not just by asserting as a stance that such a position doesn’t exist, but by unfolding a more consistent self-reflexive critique that provides us with a more consistent means of grounding our normative judgments.

So… These were the thoughts I carried with me into reading Scott’s draft. I won’t summarise the draft in detail – it is really worth reading in its own right, and I can’t stress strongly enough how metatheoretical issues of the sort I’m raising here really don’t connect in any direct way with this piece, which is an intervention – and an important one – driving toward the creation of cross-disciplinary spaces for theoretical debate. For present purposes, I intend only to isolate out a few specific moments of the draft, in order to pose some questions about what it might look like, what impact it might have, to think this piece in relation to the sorts of normative standards I’ve sketched above.

On one level, Scott presents us with a tragedy of unintended consequences: new publication technologies, which on one level were liberatory for their ability to open up spaces for the discussion of marginalised areas of research, also facilitated the rise of isolated and balkanised intellectual micro-communities that incubated mutually-reinforcing in-group discourses and promoted hyper-specialisation and the growth of sub-sub-disciplines – fragmenting intellectual discourse and undermining the ability to recognise commonalities or to benefit from external critique. This process was further augmented by a canonisation of significant theoretical texts into a series of anthologies that were intended to raise the theoretical sophistication of the field by propagating important critical theoretic concepts. Unfortunately, the impact of such anthologies on pedagogical practice undermined this intended effect, resulting in a form of socialisation into theory as an eclectic and dehistoricised toolkit from which students were encouraged to mix and match ill-fitting conceptual tools. A somewhat more tacit narrative suggests that these technological and pedagogical shifts were spun in these particular directions – with these specific unintended consequences – in partial response to the broader context of the transformation of the academic job market in the 1970s and 1980s.

The consequence, Scott suggests, was a kind of institutionalisation of practically – if not necessarily intellectually – incommensurable micro-communities, alongside a general decline in the institutional and personal capacity to engage in serious and sustained critical debates across theoretical divides. This institutionalisation has progressed to the point where it is difficult to see where such engagements would take place, in the absence of the creation of fundamentally new kinds of institutional environments – a position Scott underscores with a poignant concluding quotation from Vijay Prashad, issuing a clarion call for overcoming the balkanised intellectual micro-communities that have developed in ethnic studies, but relegated to publishing this demand in the specialist Journal of Asian American Studies.

So Scott offers a clear, critical vision, articulated in the form of an historical account of how his object of critique has come to be. He advocates for the creation of new institutional spaces for interdisciplinary exchange – with a tacit nod to the internet as a potential technological enabler. He also puts forward some interesting critical standards – particularly in the form of a concept of “dialectical pluralism”, a strategy in which communities that share very few substantive assumptions might nevertheless benefit from the refinement that comes through the confrontation with fundamentally divergent theoretical and empirical traditions. While Scott uses the vocabulary of “incommensurability” in discussing such communities, he also appeals to a sort of meta-context of communicative ideals – those expressed in the notion that discussion amongst communities ought to take place based on “an aggressive commitment to strong beliefs, weakly held” – that point to a background network of shared norms that are conceptualised, at least potentially, to be comprehensible by, and defensible to, communities that might make claims that are incommensurable on other levels of abstraction.

I’m sympathetic to such ideals. And yet I found myself wondering how Scott might “close the loop” – how he might explain – in terms of the sorts of analytical strategies and concepts in which he unfolds his critique of theoretical eclecticism – the historical ground for the alternative he advocates. He evidently doesn’t believe his position has yet achieved institutional form – this is precisely why he would write a piece such as this, which is clearly conceptualised as an intervention into a still-open field of historical potentials, in which such interventions might be hoped to have an impact on the subsequent course of history. Moreover, his normative standards retain the qualitative distinction between local, concrete contexts – particular intellectual communities – and some kind of overarching set of normative ideals that transcend those local incommensurabilities and ground the potential for some kind of productive cross-communal discussion. Such positions suggest that we understand our historical context to be comprised of more than already-realised institutions, more than concrete and self-constituting communities. What is this “more”, though – and can we conceptualise such a thing while still meeting the standards of thinking that “history will happen to all of us”, and that the theorist/historian therefore cannot be conceptualised as somehow residing outside the frame?

It is here that I began to worry a bit about what might be a small slippage in the draft – a small tension between the unfolding of the critique, and the sorts of normative standards that Scott suggests he might be trying to uphold in the Long Sunday discussion. By failing to analyse his own historical position – to embed himself, as he tries to embed the objects of his critique – Scott risks being, I think, misunderstood in ways that might then undermine receptiveness to his quite important normative goals. Tacitly, this piece suggests an opposition between how it analyses the past – the “fogbank” that resulted from the unfortunate and unintended consequences of technological and pedagogical shifts – and Scott’s own position that, because it is never historicised in the same way, is presented in the text as though it emerges from… clear thinking… As though Scott has somehow reasoned himself out of the dilemmas of an earlier, and now visibly problematic, approach to theory. I found myself wondering whether this argumentative option remains available, once we begin to say things like “history will happen to all of us”. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to talk about the sort of historical shifts that help make Scott’s own critical perspective more plausible, more historically intuitive, at our current moment – so that we can understand our own critique as itself something historically achieved? And wouldn’t this react back, at least a bit, on the critique itself – orienting our enquiry toward reasons that an earlier articulation of theory might have been, in fact, adequate in some specific ways to its own moment – even if, for determinate reasons, it might no longer be adequate to ours.

Scott invokes the phrase “Hegelian seriousness” at key strategic moments throughout his piece. I suppose thoughts of Hegel for me always involve thoughts of determinate negation – and I became curious what form Scott’s critique might take, if it were to take the form of such a negation. Perhaps it would involve an investigation of the way in which theoretical eclecticism might make more intuitive sense during periods of rapid and dramatic transformation – might appeal in ways that make it easier for people to overlook the downsides Scott identifies so well, and might even be justifiable in some senses Scott might not explicitly canvas. Perhaps the fact that we can no longer find it in ourselves to overlook the downsides of such theoretical approaches also tells us something – perhaps it should send us casting about for reasons that we have become so sensitive to a different constellation of problems and of potentials, a constellation that drives us to advocate for a new period of institutional reform. It may be that a dose of “Hegelian seriousness” might react back, at least a bit, on the way in which historicisation is tacitly equated with the study of institutionalisation in some of Scott’s statements, sensitising us to investigate the sorts of irritants that drive dissatisfaction with existing institutions, and motivate the responsiveness to proposals for institutional transformation…

None of which is to suggest that I think all of these issues should be covered in Scott’s article – even if Scott were to agree with this line of questioning, a single article will never juggle all of these issues, and articles written as interventions need to strive for a particular clarity in their advocacy, and can’t be bogged down in the sorts of epistemological and ontological minutiae I’ve been raising here. So I suppose what I’m offering is more on the level of associations around Scott’s piece, wondering what approach might allow such an argument to be made self-reflexively, in a form adequate to the insight that “history will happen to us all”…

Updated: Just wanted to note that Scott has now posted on this subject at The Valve and Acephalous, in case folks should want to follow the discussion around and about those parts. For my part, I have to get back to my day (and night, and all hours in between) job before orange. draws attention once more to my persistent contradictory, procrastinatory nature… ;-P

Updated 19 Feb: Just a quick update to point to Eileen Joy’s thoughtful response to Scott’s piece, posted at the group blog In the Middle (and also at Acephalous). The response is complex, and should be read in its own right. Briefly, Joy contests key aspects of Scott’s analysis of the technological drivers of “balkanisation”, suggests that he may overstate the impact of anthologisation on pedagogical practice, at least at the postgraduate level, and worries that Scott’s normative standpoint tacitly points to a totalising, “disciplinary” and “masculinist”/agonistic ideal of theoretical engagement. Joy suggests that eclecticism could equally – and less problematically – be overcome through deep, specialist immersion in a small number of texts from a chosen theoretical tradition.

And (a bit later in the day) to point to Scott Eric Kaufman’s round-the-web review of responses to his piece.

Updated 21 Feb: And the discussion continues to flow, picked up by Jodi Dean at Long Sunday (cross-posted from I Cite). Jodi picks up on Eileen Joy’s post (which itself continues to provoke an excellent discussion over at In the Middle), and draws attention to the ramifications of this kind of theoretical debate when we expand our frame of reference outside the academy, and consider the real-world political stakes of what could otherwise be confused for a debate over academic turf. Jodi also queries some points Rich Puchalsky has raised in the discussion here about a commitment to incommensurability – arguing that, while Rich’s framing of the issue implies some kind of willed argumentative stance, the core issue is more one of competing ontological claims. Jodi concludes (but folks really should read her post in its entirety):

For me, incommensurability isn’t something one is committed to or not. It’s a description of the world (I prefer the term collapse of symbolic efficiency) that one can try to refute, resolve, deny, or accommodate. Generosity toward incommensurable views or positions is one mode of accommodation. In the political world, this is rarely possible (modus vivendi is one fragile possibility). In the academic world, it is often decided/determined budgetarily, but remains as a site of conflict and contestation–actually, not unlike in the political world. Perhaps, though, conflict over the details, the working through of momentary compromises is not trivial. Perhaps it is a kind of inching forward toward a necessarily impossible and unattainable resolution.

Don’t Mention the War

Sarapen and I were just discussing the other day our mutually vague relationship to the war over “theory” that periodically ebbs and flows across various blogs we lurk. I commented that it made me feel somewhat of an inadequate ethnographer, that I couldn’t seem to get a better feel for this dispute – a comment that already suggests that I experience myself in a strange side-on relationship to this discussion, such that I have a bit of trouble imagining how I’d intervene in any way other than ethnographically.

The latest iteration of the debate, for anyone who’d like to follow, was, as far as I can tell, initiated by John Holbo’s post at The Valve, which was then picked up by Adam Kotsko at The Weblog, and in a different way by Jodi Dean at Long Sunday (cross-posted to I Cite). I don’t intend here to comment on these (quite elaborate and extended) discussions, but instead to point to what seem, to me, to be some interesting conversational eddies operating to the side of the main fray. I wanted particularly to draw attention to:

Joseph Kugelmass’ contribution at The Valve, which sets itself the quite ambitious – but important – goal of addressing the questions:

why I think the debate has taken its current form, what it means to do theory while fully aware that one is doing so, and how all this relates to blogging and the blogosphere ideal of good faith

And Sinthome’s analysis at Larval Subjects, which asks how these debates might refract themes related to the assertion of institutional power, and whether this might encourage a tendency to reach for an engagement with overarching catch-all categories, rather than with the substantive arguments of individual theorists. Sinthome’s post ends with a challenge I see as particularly important in any debate over theoretical systems:

However, as a more pressing matter, what I can’t figure out is what alternative there might be to Theory. If the critics of Theory wish to convince me that they occupy a superior position they’re going to have to offer me something in return, some sort of option or some sort of alternative. All of my analytic training– and by this I mean Anglo-American philosophy –teaches me that there is no such thing as a non-theory laden perspective. This is the lesson to be drawn from the likes of Sellars. What, then, is this non-theory laden perspective of which these critics seem to be speaking?

At the moment, my schedule really doesn’t allow me to comment in any substantive way on the overarching debate, but I thought it was at least worthwhile pointing to these pieces in particular for the productive questions they pose and the way in which they seek to slice through the major stakes in the cross-blog discussion.

Blogocalypse Watch

Dr Who and Rose contemplate the end of the earth.Posting from me may be a bit quiet for a few days because THE END IS NIGH! Well, actually, because I have to put reading packs together for my courses – but a lot of people apparently believe the end is nigh, which means that, while things are quiet around here, you can all go off and read the latest installments in the cross-blog discussion of why a lot of people believe such things.

Those coming late to this party (it is later than you think…) might want to check out the original pointer to the cross-blog discussion of apocalyptic ideals in contemporary social movements, as well as the update.

Since then, the following links have come to my attention:

First, the ever-thorough High Low & in between is now up to their fifth installment in the apocalyptic sublimity series – this one engaging quite thoroughly with K-Punk’s piece (see below), as well as Sinthome’s conference paper on left and right apocalyptic visions in popular culture – and asking Joseph Kugelmass for more information on the concept of “ideological thin slicing”.

K-Punk has written an excellent analysis of Children of Men.

Gary Sauer-Thompson over at Junk for Code suggests that Leunig might be making witty comments about us, and offers some fresh reflections on apocalyptic sentiments and the experience of the sublime.

Matthew Cheney over at The Mumpsimus likes Joseph Kugelmass’ intervention, but worries that linking the themes of poetry and apocalypticism will drive us back into the old argument about author engagement

And The Constructivist over at Mostly Harmless (love the name of this blog, by the way…) has given our roving apocalyptic voyeurism a formal name – The Blogocalypse – and, having initially proposed a Carnival of the Blogocalypse as a bit of a joke, is now beginning to think it might not be such a bad idea, after all.

Given all this collective effervesence, I’m beginning to think I’ll have to change my mind about Joseph Kugelmass’ protest against the use of apocalyptic narratives to create social bonds: look how many bloggers I’ve met while contemplating our impending doom!

[Note: image @2005 BBC]

Apocalypticism as Mechanical Solidarity

Who knew that there would be such interest in the apocalypse? ;-P

Asking some forbearance for yet another update on how the conversation on apocalypticism continues to percolate across even more blogs, I wanted to post a pointer to Joseph Kugelmass’ thoughtful and provocative reflections, which have been posted to The Valve (as well as to his own site, The Kugelmass Episodes, for those who prefer a cozier venue). Joe’s posts jump off from the earlier cross-blog discussion of how to interpret contemporary apocalypticism, but develop along lines suggested in Joe’s ongoing series of critical reflections on contemporary ethics and aethetics.

Joe’s most recent interventions have been posted in two parts:

“The Poem and the Apocalypse, Part One: Destructive Fantasies” (or, at KE)- which revisits the cross-blog discussion, offers its own analysis of types of apocalyptic fantasy, and draws particular attention to the phenomenon Joe calls “thin slicing” – the instrumental and selective mobilisation of symbolically charged evidence directed to ideological ends, and predicated on the assumption that social connection necessarily requires agreement and sameness; and

“The Poem and the Apocalypse, Part Two: Children of Men and Frank O’Hara’s Personism” (or, at KE) – which moves from an analysis of Cuaron’s Children of Men to an analysis of O’Hara’s Personism, in order to unfold a series of reflections on the potential for a vision of social connection that transcends instrumentalist “thin slicing”.

I’ll apologise to Joe for flattening the content considerably in this synopsis – Joe’s posts, and the subsequent discussion, are worth reading in full to get a proper feel for the points in contention.

Updated 30 January: Yet more apocalypse! High Low & in between has added a fourth installment to the apocalyptic sublimity series of posts on the apocalypticism discussion, with yet another good summary of the cross-blog discussion as well as fresh original observations, while Sinthome has posted the conference presentation inspired by the blog discussion at Larval Subjects.

And now, update-on-the-update, we have our very own carnival… er… sort of: the Unofficial Carnival of the Blogocalypse, assembled by The Constructivist at the group blog Mostly Harmless.

Cliff Notes to the Apocalypse

I had been intending to write something pointing to the various follow-ups to the discussion on apocalyptic social movements that originally started, and has continued, as a kind of conversational flow across various blogs. I discovered this morning, though, that High Low & in between has assembled an extraordinary summary of the discussion – complete with links and annotations of the earlier rounds of the discussion, and a new response to k-punk’s latest post on the subject (which itself takes up points from the discussion between this blog and Larval Subjects). Just wanted to place a pointer to High Low & in between’s overview post here, as it can be difficult to follow a discussion like this, in which a cloud of blogs seems to coalesce around slightly different dimensions of a similar interest.

Updated 28 January: Since we seem to have incoming visitors from The Valve, I just wanted to point, as well, to further thoughts on this topic from Larval Subjects, comments on the original discussion at Smokewriting and philosophical conversations, as well as the conversation still simmering at I Cite. Happy to add other links, if people will make me aware of them.

Meanwhile, for those in a less pessimistic mood, Sinthome from Larval Subjects and I have also continued this discussion along a different fork, exploring potential overlaps between Adorno and Lacan, and continuing our long-term conversation on the project of critical theory. Sinthome’s latest contributions can be found here and here, while my latest is here.

Updated 29 January: Just wanted to post a few more links, first to a post above summarising Joseph Kugelmass’ Valve entries, and then direct links to those entries themselves.

Updated 30 January: Yet more apocalypse! High Low & in between has added a fourth installment to the apocalyptic sublimity series of posts on the apocalypticism discussion, with yet another good summary of the cross-blog discussion as well as fresh original observations, while Sinthome has posted the conference presentation inspired by the blog discussion at Larval Subjects.

And now, update-on-the-update, we have our very own carnival… er… sort of: the Unofficial Carnival of the Blogocalypse, assembled by The Constructivist at the group blog Mostly Harmless.