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Social Research

So it’s been a somewhat gruelling couple of weeks, getting everything together for the two methods courses I’m covering this term. The undergraduate course, since it’s new and we were designing it from scratch, took the lion’s share of the time – although it was nice to be able to work alongside the ultra-competent (and ubiquitously sardonic) L Magee in pulling everything together.

The course is large enough, and massive lecture halls scarce enough, that we have to deliver two different iterations of the lecture – so we had one go at the lecture Monday morning, and will get another try on Friday. Most of the first lecture, necessarily, dealt with housekeeping and course mechanics. I’m currently trying to gather my thoughts from the lecture on Monday – I always learn something about the tacit logic of my own stuff, when I present it – there were elements of the tacit logic underlying the structure of the lecture, elements of grasping why I wanted to organise my bits the way I did, that I sort of “got” only when listening to myself give the lecture… We’ll see if this improves the reiteration of the lecture to be delivered on Friday.

I thought I’d post a few notes here on the lecture and course concepts – with the caveat that I’m always a bit cringe-y when I expose pedagogical material publicly. There’s a strong exhortative dimension to teaching – things get simplified, not simply or straightforwardly to make them easier to learn, but with the goal of trying to rouse something, trying to pass along a certain contagion about why this stuff can actually be exciting (er… realising that what I’m about to write may not… er… have that effect on terribly many people – I don’t claim to be a rousing lecturer – quite the contrary (really strongly the contrary) – my skills lie much more in leading discussions – but there is still an element, in lecturing, of wanting to communicate affect, and not simply content, of wanting to share, somehow, that the very abstract sort of material that I generally teach, can be deeply meaningful in its strange way – and something about what I do, to try to communicate this, never seems to me to translate well when I write about what I did – instead, what comes through is the simplicity of the content, all the ways I would qualify it, all the ways I disagree with it… And yet… There’s a reason that stuff gets left out of the lecture in the first place… A reason that doesn’t prevent me from being fairly self-conscious about reproducing lecture concepts outside the shelter of the lecture hall…)

The course is titled “Social Research: Qualitative”, and the structure of classes here gives you twelve weeks to somehow meet whatever expectations such a title engenders. Last year, the staff member who took this course decided that twelve weeks simply wasn’t enough to give a meaningful introduction to something as broad as “social research” and so decided to drill closely down into one research method (discourse analysis), to try to give the students some in-depth experience with mastering a particular method, from which they could hopefully extrapolate when orienting themselves to other methods in the future. In earlier years, the course has been taught with a heavy NVivo focus, with all the students doing the same research project – again with the thought that students could extrapolate their experience with that project, into other sorts of research they might conduct in the future.

We’re equally dismayed, I suspect, by the jarring disjoint between the expansive course title, and what can reasonably be covered in twelve weeks in an introductory methods class for second-year undergraduates. Something – lots and lots of somethings – have to “go”, to make the course possible.

We’ve channelled our dismay, however, in a slightly different direction: while it is certainly true that any individual student is going to do some specific form of research project, and neglect others, we’ve decided not to pre-dictate either the method or the project itself. There will no doubt be plenty of project-deflection over the term, as students choose topics that are too vast – or illegal, dangerous, or inappropriate in other ways… ;-P But in principle we’ve left it to the students what they want to study, substantively, and how they intend to study it. Although we will do a bit with “method” in the “to do” list sense in this course, we’ve decided instead to focus on the most basic elements of the research design process – becoming curious about something, asking a question, looking around to see whether anyone else has ever asked something similar, trying to figure out what you need to do, to answer the question you’ve asked, and then being accountable for your question, what you’ve done to answer it, and the answer you’ve put forward, in a public sphere.

This approach means that we can’t dictate method, because we’re telling the students in a very strong way that their method has to derive in some quasi-logical way from their question. And we can’t dictate question because… well… we’re telling students that research is about straddling that strange space between personal curiosity and public accountability – and it’s a bit out of place to tell other people what they ought to be curious about… ;-P

So we bookended this first lecture with two videos, designed to mark out two possible extremes in conceptions of social research. After some brief transitional comments, we opened with the first six minutes of this video of the Milgram experiments:

What the students saw, was a man in a white lab coat take an authoritative role in a highly artificial experimental setting, where the stated purpose of the exercise was to test a hypothesis in carefully controlled circumstances. I did warn the students there was more to this experiment that met the eye (we’ll return to this video again later in the course) – but the parting image they were left with was of what looked to be a research subject with a heart condition, strapped to a chair, awaiting progressively nastier electric shocks if he failed in a memorisation task… (They laughed… Hmmm… I responded by telling them we would trial this method in their tutorials…)

So this is one extreme – not, in this case, for the distressing nature of the experiment, but for the highly artificial, controlled, hypothesis-testing orientation of the study. The video with which we ended the session was this one, on Sudhir Venkatesh’s anthropological work on a Chicago gang (the embedded video below is only an excerpt – the full program is here):

Venkatesh’s piece was chosen for a sort of maximal contrast to the fragment of the Milgram video that we showed: a research scenario in which the field strikes back, takes its researcher captive in the most literal possible sense, rejects the researcher’s “expert” knowledge, and tells the researcher how to conduct the (radically uncontrolled) study.

We will do other things with these and other video materials through the course but, for purposes of this introductory lecture, the point was simply to mark out two extreme points, suggest that there is a continuum of possibilities between them – and that all of this, the whole continuum, could be defended as some form of “social research”. A continuum of social research along which the students would have some opportunity to begin situating themselves in the course of the term.

In terms of other content, this blurb from the course guide gives the gist of how we are approaching the course:

Many people, when they think about research, think of something done in a special sort of place, like a laboratory, a library, or a “field site”, by a special sort of person, like an academic expert who has spent years acquiring a vast specialist knowledge of what they are studying, and on a special sort of topic, which is important enough to count as a “research question”. Thought of this way, research can seem a bit intimidating and removed from our other concerns: we can struggle to think of ourselves as being the kind of people who might do research – surely we aren’t qualified or we don’t “know enough”? We can struggle to imagine what research might look like, if carried out in the sorts of settings where we spend our personal and professional time – surely research doesn’t tackle the sorts of experiences we have in our everyday lives? We can doubt whether our questions and concerns are “important” enough to count as research questions – surely research investigates something more removed from our everyday experiences or personal passions?

While it is very common to think of research as this kind of specialised, rarefied expert activity, this image of research is highly misleading. Research, at its most basic, involves cultivating the very opposite of expertise: it entails a process of opening ourselves to what we don’t know – of taking seriously our own curiosity and desire to learn more – of asking questions. Because research crystallises around a question, the research process is driven precisely by our lack of expertise – by what we need to learn. In the research process, we all position ourselves as explorers and investigators, rather than as people who already possess some kind of mastery over our subject matter. Because research operates in this space of exploration and uncertainty – because it takes the form of quest to learn something new – it is impossible to have all the skills and knowledge you will need for the research process, before you undertake the research itself.

While some of us may have a bit more practical experience with research than others, all of us have some experience with the core skills required for the research process: we have all been curious, asked questions, set about finding answers, and debated with other people about each step in this process. On one level, then, we are all “researchers” in at least an informal sense. At the same time, no specific research project – formal or informal – begins with a special creature called a “researcher” who already possesses all the skills and knowledge required to carry out a research project, before they start asking questions and working out how to answer them. Researchers are created, not born. And what creates them is nothing more than the process of actually doing research. You become a researcher: you do this by carrying out research. All the skills that research requires, and all the things you need to know to do research successfully, are learned through the research process itself.

This doesn’t mean that formal study is not essential to the research process: it is. It means that this formal study more closely resembles the process of apprenticing in a craft, than it does the process of committing to memory some fixed body of information. Research is a practical activity – an art, albeit one undertaken with a scientific spirit. Every question, every method, every researcher brings something subtly different to the research process – meaning that research is never learned ​abstractly, as a skill that could be pursued separately from its various practical applications. Instead, your research question is what drives your formal study, providing a meaningful context within which you can work out what sorts of formal knowledge and skills you need to have, why you need to have them, and how you can learn them most efficiently. Your research question therefore grounds other sorts of study you undertake – which is why we will start this course, not with an abstract set of knowledge or skills we think you need to memorise, but with activities that will help you work out a research question that can organise the rest of your work in this course.

From this starting point, we will then guide you as you undertake a quick apprenticeship in the major stages of the research process. There are of course many different types of research. The research carried out by a journalist, an activist, a market researcher, a government, or an academic researcher will differ in significant ways, for example, due to the different end goals and audiences for the research. Nevertheless, certain elements are common to any sort of research process. Those common elements will provide the focus of our work in this course.

The Monstrous Body of Capital

Continuing my process of catching up on things that have been written while I was away, I wanted to post a pointer to Steven Shaviro’s fantastic series of reflections on Capital and contemporary Marxism over at The Pinocchio Theory. The first post introduces the problematic:

Of course, there is a good reason why recent Marxist theory is so concerned with the problem of the subject. It is a way of raising the question of agency. What is to be done? How might capitalism be altered or abolished? It’s hard to give credence any longer to the old-fashioned Marxist narrative, according to which the “negation of the negation,” or the “expropriation of the expropriators,” would inevitably take place, sooner or later. Neither the worldwide economic collapse of the 1930s, nor the uprisings and radical confrontations of the 1960s, led to anything like the “final conflict” of which generations of revolutionaries dreamed. Today we are no longer able to believe that the capitalist order is fated to collapse from its own contradictions. It is true that these contradictions lead to turmoil, and to misery for many. Yet the overall process of capital accumulation is not necessarily harmed by these convulsions. If Capital could speak, it might well say, in the manner of Nietzsche’s Overman, that “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger.” The genius of capitalism lies in its ability to turn to its own account whatever destabilizes it, and whatever is raised against it. In the absence of that old militant optimism, we are left with the sinking feeling that nothing works, that nothing we can do will make any difference. This sense of paralysis is precisely the flip side of our “empowerment” as consumers. The more brutal the neoliberal “reforms” of the last thirty years have been, and the more they have taken away from us, the more they have forced upon us the conviction that there is No Alternative.

This crushing demoralization is itself a testimony to Marx’s prescience. How else but with a sense of utter helplessness could we respond to a world in which Marx’s insights into the tendencies and structures of capitalism have been so powerfully verified? From primitive accumulation to capital accumulation, from globalization to technological innovation, from exploitation in sweatshops to the delirium of ungrounded financial circulation: all the processes that Marx analyzed and theorized in the three volumes of Capital are far more prevalent today, and operate on a far more massive scale, than was ever the case in Marx’s own time. By the late 1990s, all this had become so evident that Marx’s analytical acumen was admired, and even celebrated, on Wall Street. As the business journalist John Cassidy wrote in a widely-noticed and frequently-cited article in The New Yorker (1997): Marx “wrote riveting passages about globalization, inequality, political corruption, monopolization, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence – issues that economists are now confronting anew. . . Marx predicted most of [globalization’s] ramifications a hundred and fifty years ago. . . [Marx’s] books will be worth reading as long as capitalism endures.”

From this point of view, the problem with Marx’s analysis is that it is just too successful. His account of the inner logic of capitalism is so insightful, so powerful, and so all-embracing, that it seems to offer no point of escape. The more we see the world in the grim terms of capital logic, the less we are able to imagine things ever being different. Marx dissected the inner workings of capitalism for the purpose of finding a way to overthrow it; but the very success of his analysis makes capitalism seem like a fatality. For the power of capital pervades all aspects of human life, and subsumes all impulses and all actions. Its contingent origins notwithstanding, capitalism consumes everything, digests whatever it encounters, transforms the most alien customs and ways of life into more of itself. “Markets will seep like gas through any boundary that gives them the slightest opening” (Dibbell 2006, 43). Adorno’s gloomy vision of a totally administered and thoroughly commodified society is merely a rational assessment of what it means to live in a world of ubiquitous, unregulated financial flows. For that matter, what is Althusser’s Spinozism, his view of history as a “process without a subject,” but a contemplation of the social world sub specie aeternitatis, and thereby a kind of fatalism, presenting capitalism as an ineluctable structure of interlinked overdeterminations whose necessity we must learn to dispassionately accept?

This and subsequent posts go on to analyse attempts to respond to this situation, including those of Hardt and Negri, Gibson-Graham, Deleuze & Guattari, and others. Shaviro’s critiques are particularly sharp: Gibson-Graham are targeted for their optimism:

This means that we have already, without quite realizing it, reached “the end of capitalism (as we know it).” Indeed, Gibson-Graham come perilously close to saying that the only thing keeping capitalism alive today is the inveterate prejudice on the part of Marxists that it really exists. Apparently, if we were just a bit more optimistic, we could simply think all the oppression away.

Hardt & Negri for their implied return to the notion of a self-superseding capitalism, agency not required:

For their part, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are by no means so obstinately cheerful. Nonetheless, I am a bit taken aback by their insistence that globalized, affective capitalism has already established, not only the “objective conditions” for communism, but also the “subjective conditions” as well. The latter come in the form of the multitude as a universal, creative, and spontaneously collective class, ready to step in and take control of a world that has already been prepared for them. This is really a twenty-first century update of the messianic side of Marx’s vision: “The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labor reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” Thus we have come full circle, back to the position that we initially rejected: one according to which the restoration of agency is not needed, for the internal dynamics of capitalism themselves lead inexorably to its ultimate abolition.

Shaviro also critically explores their reversal of Marx’s metaphorics – their attempt to appropriate the imagery of the monstrous, which in Marx figure as critiques of the animated, undead, parasitic, and Frankensteinian body of capital, as an emancipatory imagery of the multitude:

This is why we must finally regard capital – rather than the multitude – as monstrous. Indeed, the monstrous qualities that Hardt and Negri attribute to the multitude – its impropriety, its ceaseless productivity, and its continual breaking of taboos and transgression of all limits – are themselves really qualities of capitalism itself, which Marx and Engels long ago described as having “burst asunder” all that stood in its way (1968, 40), and as possessing a “voracious appetite” not for any particular “useful products,” but for “the production of surplus value itself” (Marx 1992, 344-345). Only capitalism values productivity for its own sake,without regard to the nature of what is produced. And only capitalism exhibits a radical impropriety, because this is simply the other side of its own property fetish.By reclaiming monstrosity for the multitude, Hardt and Negri inadvertently erase the monstrosity of capital itself.

Running through all of this are reflections on Deleuze & Guattari’s analysis of the Body without Organs, culminating in some fantastic imagery for our complex relation to the metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties of our own product, become an alien force:

The “full body” or flesh of capital, therefore, is at the same time palpable and intangible – however much of an oxymoron this formulation might seem to be. We are always in contact with this ghastly flesh, but we are never actually able to “grasp” it. We do not have enough distance to apprehend it accurately; we can no more “see” it than a flea can see the dog within whose fur it is embedded. In our pragmatic, day-to-day experience, this capital-body is an alien enormity, that we cannot ever tear ourselves free from, but that we also do not own or control in any way. The experience of the capital-body is common to everyone; but this is only a suffering in common, rather than the production in common that Hardt and Negri would like it to be. Either as producers or consumers, our subjective activity is relentlessly atomized and scattered; the only unity is that of the socius itself. We scurry about in the folds and convolutions of this capital-flesh like lice or bedbugs. At best, we may manage to divert some of the flows of the body of capital, pervert them, and detourn them. We may even be able to reprogram the body’s “axiomatics” or “genetic code” here and there, just a little bit, the way that viruses do. But that is all. This capital-flesh oppresses us, but we are stuck within it. We hate it, but we are also compelled to love it, because we depend upon it for sustenance, and we cannot live without it. Understood according to the order of first causes, sub specie aeternitatis as Spinoza would have it, capital is parasitic upon the labor of the multitude. But existentially and experientially, the situation is rather the reverse: we are parasites on the monstrous body of Capital.

Fantastic series – much much more in the originals.

Meme: Passion Quilt

Lumpenprof has tagged me with a meme with the following conditions:

Post a picture or make/take/create your own that captures what YOU are most passionate for students to learn about.

Give your picture a short title.

Title your blog post “Meme: Passion Quilt.”

Link back to this blog entry.

Include links to 5 (or more) educators.

I notice the emphasis on the “YOU” in the meme, so I am assuming that we aren’t talking about what I spend the most time on, in my teaching (which often relates to the cultivation of reading and writing skills) but rather – taking the meme at its viral word – what I am most passionate about. What I am most passionate about is giving students a particular sort of orientation to history – and particularly to the present as history. I am most passionate about throwing time out of joint. Ironically (or appropriately) enough, I lack the time to develop these thoughts at the moment, so I’ll post my picture and allow Benjamin (as so often) to do the talking for me – under the caption:

Open Time

breaking open the rosary beadHistoricism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history. But no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it were, though events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time.

Passing the meme on to:


Dead Voles

The Kugelmass Episodes

Union Street


[Note: Image citation – “Rosary Bead [South Lowlands (Brabant)] (17.190.475)”. In Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006)]

Value as What Will Have Been

Ktismatics has an interesting post and discussion up on different conceptions of value and the fetish, with reference to The Wire. A taste, from the comments:

I’ve been reading some of N. Pepperell’s posts about Marx on Rough Theory, and in so doing I realize that I, like Stringer, have a hard time thinking of value in terms other than product. The Wire doesn’t dwell on the effects of narcotics on the user, and it certainly doesn’t look at the work entailed in growing, processing and transporting the drugs. All we ever see is the exchange: the buyer hands off the money to person A and receives the product from person B. We do see the product being “stepped on;” i.e., reduced in potency by mixing it with baking soda, thereby increasing the sheer weight of stuff being sold. Apparently the users are willing to tolerate, and to pay for, heroin at less than full strength. It’s difficult for the user to know for sure how hard the product has been stepped on, since the high it generates is a subjective response. However, the reduction in effectiveness must be noticeable, especially in comparison to product on offer from competitors. What the buyer cares about is the subjective benefit s/he receives from the product; i.e., the quality of the high from ingesting the dope. And s/he is willing to pay more for what promises to be a better high, based on prior personal experience with the product as well as marketplace information obtained from other buyers who have used the product.

When I was replying to this thread, I found myself writing something that might or might not be clearer than some of what I’ve tossed out over here – specifically, I wrote:

I see value, instead, as referring to, if this makes sense, “what labour will have been”. We operate in a context in which all sorts of empirical activities are being carried out, in the hope that they will somehow successfully push product. Those activities don’t always succeed. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t; sometimes they don’t succeed as well as they were intended to; sometimes they succeed enormously better than expected. “Value” is the term for the level of “success” that ultimately gets conferred on product – not the labour expended, but the degree of social recognition bequeathed. The amount of value that will be conferred can never be known from the empirical labouring activities or other directly perceptible elements that go into the product. The category of value therefore refers to something of which we can never have exact knowledge – it’s the category of a society that acts out an “in itself” – an unknowable inner essence whose effects nevertheless pervade what we can know and perceive directly.

I’ll correct this comment a bit here: I see “abstract labour” as referring to “what labour will have been”. Value refers to the abstract labour “materialised” in a product. Both are fundamentally retrospective categories – categories that we can read out of macrosociological trends unfolding over time, but not categories that can be derived from any concretistic empirical analysis of actual labouring activities or actual goods at any specific moment in time. Abstract labour and value are products of the reproduction of capital.

I see Marx trying to draw our attention (in this bit of the argument) to the implications of a collective practice we take utterly for granted: the practice of engaging speculatively in labouring activities, in the hopes that these activities will produce something that “succeeds” on the market. Many of these speculative efforts fail; many don’t succeed as well as hoped; many do succeed; and some succeed beyond all expectation. There is no correlation between the amount of empirical labour, resources, and other directly measurable factors, and the level of success – Marx somewhere uses the term “conferred” – on the products of some particular labouring activity.

Marx is trying to tarry over this, when he makes the opening argument about value and the fetish – to ask what the implications of living in such an environment might be, for forms of perception, thought, embodiment, political ideals. The first chapter of Capital is a very compressed demonstration of some of those implications, before we even get to the point of examining the component practices that bring this whole system into existence and reproduce it.

One of his arguments is that the context is haunted by “what labour will have been” – by this intrinsically unknowable “abstract labour” that will ultimately be conferred on particular activities to particular degrees, endorsing or disendorsing those activities as successful inclusions in what gets to “count” as “social labour” – and therefore, over time, exerting a sort of evolutionary selective pressure that encourages the reproduction of certain forms of labour over others. In the tacit metacommentary being addressed to Kant (and Hegel) in the opening chapter of Capital, abstract labour figures as a sort of practically enacted “in itself” of capitalist society – as something we create, something we produce, something we make – but whose qualitative characteristics resemble those expressed in certain kinds of philosophical categories, and that also express, on a much more mass and popular level, certain forms of embodiment and political ideals, such as those, for example, articulated in notions of “inalienable” essences that factor into the development of “rights talk”.

“Value” is a category that picks out the “abstract labour” that has been “materialised” in the products of labour. Of course, since “abstract labour” is “what labour will have been”, value is also a category that “will have been” (in Derrida’s terms, value is inherently a category of a time out of joint – but for Marx this is a specific time and a particular sort of out-of-jointness…). In Marx’s argument, as I hear it, value is a product – and moreover a product whose existence must be deduced from the apparently random flux of the movement of goods on the market and (as Capital unfolds from the first chapter) from trends in the development of the form of production itself. Marx teases the political economists, saying that they “don’t know where to have it” – that they don’t grasp the ontological status of the category of value, and therefore don’t grasp how the category is enacted in practice. This is not because political economy suppresses knowledge of expropriation (Marx will get to that argument later) – at this point in the text, he is arguing that the political economists don’t know “where to have” value, because value is perpetually a category that “will have been” – a category whose existence can only be read off retrospectively from the outcomes of social practice oriented to other ends. Even where value and its connection to abstract labour has been successfully deduced, Marx suggests that political economy doesn’t work out how social practice comes to be constrained so as to render such categories valid for this form of social life.

The rest of the work then, among other things, attempts to work this out – to establish how these “will have beens” are effected by practices that don’t set out to produce such a result. The category of capital – and the capital-wage labour relation – will soon be introduced as the necessary presupposition for these opening categories. More on all this some other time… Just experimenting with the new vocabulary for the moment, to see how comfortable I am with where it takes me…

On other fronts, Nate has a nice post up at what in the hell… distilling points from David Graeber’s “The Sadness of Post-Workerism”.

And, to everyone who helped out as I was trying to piece the lecture together: I delivered it last night (a bit like a premature baby). All went well. I think. All went, at the very least. Not much on global warming. Quite a lot on the philosophy of science, in relation to the specific question of developing alternatives to dogmatism and scepticism. A quick romp through Bacon, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Weber, Foucault, Latour, and various parts betwixt and between. An overarching argument about how easy it is for critics to be bitten in the butt, when they fail to grasp that they are operating in a non-linear historical context. And some sort of concluding bon mot about dogmatists currently using the tools of scepticism in the service of dogma – it all sounded very Adornian at the time, I’m certain of it… ;-P But seriously: thanks everyone – it was very helpful to be able to vent and to talk some things through.

Argument in Continental Philosophy

Over at The Ends of Thought, Roman Altshuler has written a nice post with the provocative title Do Continental Philosophers Have Arguments?”. Altshuler notes that the perception that continental philosophers don’t engage in argument is likely arise among people who don’t read much continental philosophy, but asks whether anything about the practice of continental philosophy might render this impression plausible. In analysing this question, he makes a number of nice points about the practice of “embedding”, rather than directly contradicting or attempting to refute, competing positions:

But I think there is another reason why continental arguments often get missed, and this seems to me to reflect a general difference in the way analytic and continental philosophers understand the purpose of argument…

…a debate can often go back and forth indefinitely, and the waning of such a debate or the prominence of a position is often attributable to factors that have little to do with the rational force of particular arguments.

And here I want to suggest that one typical (though not universal) continental approach to arguments arises out of this recognition: arguments are viewed not so much as techniques used to demonstrate an opponent’s flaw, but rather as attempts to make intelligible underlying issues. …

So while an analytic philosopher might take the arguments primarily as something to be defended or refuted, a continental philosopher may be more likely to look at the context of the arguments on both sides and to search for the deeper conceptual problems involved. Often this involves a method of looking for aporias (a method Ricoeur calls “aporetics”)—points at which both sides have been so thoroughly defended that the fruitful response is not to contribute to one side or the other, but instead to take the problem to be for all intents and purposes insoluble, and to seek the reason for this insolubility in the conceptual scheme common to both sides.

The goal of a continental argument, then, is often not to attempt to resolve a philosophical problem directly, but to try to make the problem itself clearer by providing an intelligible picture of why the problem appears so intractable in the first place. This may seem unphilosophical and, really, unsatisfying to those committed to solving the problem; but it involves the recognition that some problems cannot be solved, and they cannot be solved not because the terms of the problem are badly defined, or because a master argument has not yet been found, but because the problem itself arises out of a mistaken schema. One consequence is that this tends to make continental writing less contentious and more conciliatory—another reason that arguments might seem to be lacking. It is conciliatory in the sense that often continental writing proceeds not by attempting to show that a particular view is wrong, but instead by showing that it is inadequate to grasping a deeper problem. But instead of simply rejecting the view, the method often goes on to seek the truth of the position, roughly, what is right about the position in the sense that it can be used to make sense of the underlying issue.

I engage in this sort of “embedding” move myself, and tend to be drawn to arguments that attempt to demonstrate the plausibility or bounded validity of what they are criticising. I suspect, though, that those on the receiving end of such “embedding” critiques don’t experience this sort of move as terribly “conciliatory”: the “embedder” is, after all, gobbling up competing forms of thought, recognising the validity of those forms of thought only in and through convicting them of not adequately grasping their own conditions of possibility… One could argue that a simple rejection or abstract negation is, in a sense, more gentle, as the process of simply dismissing one’s opponent preserves the opposition on a more level agonistic plane…

Of course Altshuler isn’t necessarily denying this, but is instead trying to make sense of the perception that continental philosophers are not directly engaging with competing forms of thought in an argumentative fashion. I thought the piece was a nice, succinct distillation of some elements of what has occasionally been discussed here around the notion of immanent, reflexive critique.

Star-Crossed Hegelians

starfieldI’ve been buried with work, and haven’t been keeping up on my Hegel posting, but will get back to the Science of Logic very soon. In the meantime, two celestial-themed Hegel posts from other sites. Tom over at Grundlegung draws attention to a special double issue of the online, open access journal Cosmos and History, on the topic of “Hegel and the Fate of History”.

Adam Roberts over at The Valve shares the following anecdote from Heinrich Heine:

Altogether, Hegel’s conversation was always a kind of monologue, sighed forth by fits and starts in a toneless voice. The baroqueness of his expressions often startled me, and I remember many of them. On beautiful starry-skied evening, we two stood next to each other at a window, and I, a young man of twenty-two who had eaten well and had good coffee, enthused about the stars and called them the abode of the bessed. But the master grumbled to himself: “The stars, hum! hum! the stars are only a gleaming leprosy in the sky.” [Heinrich Heine, Confessions (1854)]

Somehow, this story has me thinking about Tom’s occasional Kantian Gloom Watch series. Perhaps there’s a good reason Tom has found only one entry for his contrasting Hegelian Glee Watch

[Note: image modified from 2001: A Space Odyssey Internet Resource Archive]

Nothing Will Help

A post from new blog The Implex captures my mood today:

A writer is most unsatisfied when writing is done, but also while writing. Between times she is anxious. While writing he mistrusts the easy flow of the pen. A good day can be as deceptive as a bad one. She lives for despair; only then is her self-deception at ease with itself. This is not to say that to be an artist one has to be melancholic – not at all. Once you’ve accepted the unshakable burden of tradition, the poverty of language, the confusion of thought, the provisional nature of every sentence, the long time needed to develop what in the mind takes but an instant, the divide between imagination and work, the misunderstanding with which others, and even you, on-again, off-again, view the finished work, the false starts and falser endings, in short, once the absolutely unlivable conditions of writing become habit – and this almost never happens; only on the doorstep of the madhouse – at this moment you become optimistic, cheery even. There blooms the sense that nothing will help.

One of the things I like best about this blog, is that all of its posts are categorised “Uncategorized”.

Let It Be

I had hoped to write a post tonight for the Science of Logic reading group on the first part of the discussion on Being. Unfortunately, I find myself in one of those vampiric states where, every time I try to sleep, I bounce back up again with something I feel I must jot down for the chapter I’m working on. This has built up an enormous sleep deficit, and I simply don’t feel I can write anything coherent until I’ve slept a bit more 🙂

I was, though, intensely enjoying the discussion of this section started by Alexei’s reflections over at Now-Times. There is some first-rate commentary from Alexei and Daniel around how to understand the relation between the Phenomenology and the Logic, as well as some material I wish I were awake enough to take up adequately here, around the “necessity” of the particular beginning Hegel uses in the Logic. Among many other fantastic points in this exchange, I am particularly interested in Daniel’s claim that:

For if the true starting-point of the Logic is not “merely” an abstract concept, but is our own thought of the abstract concept, then we can take a different tack on Hegel’s comment in ss98 of the Logic that “all that is present is simply the resolve, which can also be regarded as arbitrary, that we propose to consider thought as such.” We don’t have to start with “Being”! We can start anywhere, but regardless of where we choose to start, we can only end our inquiry into thought by canvassing the entire system of Logical categories. Thus the choice of a “starting point” is arbitrary; the only part of the beginning that is important as a beginning is the fact that (wherever we are starting off at), we are aiming to consider thought, here (as opposed to considering biology, or history, or sociology, or physics, or psychology, or some other such topic). So the “invocation of Being” here is just — an aesthetically pleasing way to start the book.

My own interpretation of the same passage isn’t quite the same (not that this should necessarily be seen as significant, as my reading of the text is very provisional). My impulse, though, is to think that it’s significant here that Hegel says the beginning can be regarded as arbitrary: my temptation is to take this phrasing as quite deliberate, and to read this is saying something like “sure, it may seem arbitrary now – but this doesn’t mean it actually is arbitrary”. I take it more that the non-arbitrariness of the beginning won’t be visible until the system as a whole has been developed – until that point, it may in fact look as though you could as well begin anywhere else. Hegel periodically challenges those who suggest that they could achieve something similar, from a different start, to go ahead and try 🙂 (apologies – much too tired at the moment, or I would look up an example). So I think more is at stake here for Hegel than simple “aesthetics” (although I do agree with Daniel’s more general point about grasping this as a consideration of thought, which therefore intrinsically confronts the issue of how to consider something that is also carrying out that process of consideration…).

Nevertheless, I think Daniel is onto something – although my instinct was to see it as something of a tension in the work, rather than to take literally the statement about the arbitrariness of the starting point. I drew attention to a strange distinction Hegel makes in par. 102:

The essential requirement for the science of logic is not so much that the beginning be a pure immediacy, but rather that the whole of the science be within itself a circle in which the first is also the last and the last is also the first.

Hegel moves immediately from here, back to a defence of the claim that being must be the beginning, but there is a tacit disjoint here between the methodology and its content – a disjoint that I find interesting, in light of some of Hegel’s other methodological suggestions.

Much too tired to say anything of substance, but I did want to draw readers’ attention to a very good discussion-in-progress. While I’m at it, I also want to put in a plug for Daniel’s SOH-Dan blog – which I just discovered via this exchange, and which is a fantastic site, with some rich material up on Hegel, Brandom, McDowell and others – the site should be of great interest to readers here who haven’t yet discovered it.

Off the Main Page

So Alexei is keeping me distracted with a set of excellent questions on draft work that doesn’t merit such attentions – the conversation, though, is excellent, so I wanted to draw attention to it, for anyone thinking things are inactive around here: I’ve been writing there, rather than starting a new post.

I also wanted to draw attention to two fantastic posts on Brandom, by Tom over at Grundlegung. Tom is working through Making It Explicit, which is causing me some pangs of guilt, as L Magee and I also intend to do this, but are both buried in thesis work. By the time we get around to it, Tom will have, I suspect, written all that is worth discussing on the topic :-). Check out his posts on:

Brandom’s Master Strategy


Brandom on Enlightenment and Disenchantment

I’ll try to get something else up here on Hegel in the next couple of days. The in-person reading group in Melbourne will be working through the first section of the doctrine of being. I haven’t decided yet if I will write on this, and then backtrack over the weekend to pick up again on the Prefaces and Introductions that have been discussed online in a fantastic set of posts, with links collected here, or if I will take up the blog discussion first… It may come down to how far behind I am in my reading (!!).

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?