Rough Theory

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Category Archives: Transformation

The Reality of Abstraction

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

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

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

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

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

Fragment on the Concept of a “Standpoint of Critique”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fragmentary Thoughts on Anger

I’ve been pausing for the past few days over the thought of writing something on Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech. I’m not skilled at writing on such things, and there has certainly been no lack of commentary on this speech from other fronts. In any event, as always seems to be the case with current affairs, my thoughts are at a tangent to much of what – even I would agree – is more important to discuss about this speech… Just a few brief words then, tonight, since this tangent keeps nagging at my thoughts…

What struck me at the time I listened to the speech, and what has kept returning to mind over the past few days, are two themes: the discussion of anger, and the role subterranean anger plays in politics; and the more tacit conception of political transformation as a process that does not emerge from a “pure” space, where good or bad, ideal or regressive, impulses exist in some form untouched by their opposites. Trauma and transformative potential, while not identical, are intertwined legacies of contemporary historical dynamics – the possibility that we could be other and more, is part of what constitutes the traumatic, scarring experience of what, in practice, we are. Those who would effect transformation emerge from this complex crucible – scars and hopes, trauma and creation, interpenetrate. There is no untainted space from which politics begins. What distinguishes transformative politics is the commitment that something transcendent already does reside within our imperfections – that part of what we already are, is the possibility to become something better and more – that our present situation, in and through its imperfections, is not our fate or some kind of static given, but the seed around which as-yet-unrealised possibilities can crystallise. The movement here is very complex – a strange, difficult combination of acceptance and acknowledgement of our starting point, with collective self-criticism that refuses to accept that this starting point must also be an end. Obama’s speech touches on such issues – and also suggests that, absent the active assertion of the possibility for transformation, scarring and anger remain as forces that can be tapped and mobilised against transformative practice.

The problem may be even more complex. As I’ve written in relation to Adorno’s work before, there is a sense in which active participation in transformative projects aggressively confronts us with the non-necessity of our own scars and traumas – forces us to surrender the reassurance that our lives had to be the way they have been – compels us to give up the notion that nothing could have been done. Asserting the possibility for a different future involves the direct confrontation with the loss of that past that could have been ours – that past that now never will be – while at the same time we assert our own potency in effecting change. Adorno suggests that the psychological demands here are both high and conflictual, pulling in different directions. Particularly in circumstances in which transformative politics seem all too likely to fail, one risk is the temptation to retreat from what can be an unbearable recognition that history could have taken a different course: to endorse retroactively the necessity for our own loss by imposing a similar loss on others, to identify with and become part of what has created our own scars. The issue of what we do with our anger – of how we acknowledge and open a space for anger over sacrifices that have by now become constitutive of us, and that can therefore no longer be rescinded – is therefore a central political question…

Apologies for not being able to develop these thoughts in a more adequate way. There is a sense in which this constellation of issues – the hybridity of people and of our times – the inadequacy of abstracting individuals or situations into clearcut categories – is always very close to me, too close to enable effective writing… There is something about the simultaneous practice of a kind of fundamental acceptance, combined with a refusal to link acceptance with a passivity in the face of the given – something about the need to bind a fundamental empathy together with a relentless critique – that strikes me as central to the practice of transformation. Perhaps some day I’ll be better able to express what I mean…

The Matter with Form

Apologies for the recent silence on the blog – I’ve been preoccupied with offline things, and blogging will unfortunately remain slow for a bit. I did want to point to a very nice recent post over at Larval Subjects, on “Social Multiplicities and Agency”. This post continues Sinthome’s recent reflections on the problem of how to thematise agency, asking whether the starting assumptions of much social and political theory – assumptions manifest, in particular, in a form/matter dichotomy – drive theory to oscillate between antinomic poles of abstract structure and agency:

At the heart of what I will call the “Althusserian model”, is the old Aristotlean conception of individuation based on the distinction between form and matter. While Althusser’s social structures are historical in the sense that they come to be and pass away and are thus unlike Aristotle’s forms which are eternal and unchanging, social structure is nonetheless conceived as forms imposed on passive matters, giving these passive matters their particular form or structure. The passive matters in question, of course, are human individuals. I am formed by social structures tout court and without remainder. In response to this conception– and I realize that I am unfairly simplifying matters –we should ask if this is an accurate conception of either agency or the social. Does not Althusser and other structuralist inspired Marxists severely simplify both social dynamics and the social itself? When Badiou speaks of the “state of the situation” “counting-multiplicities as one”, has he not severely simplified how the social is in fact organized, creating the illusion that there’s a monolithic structure at work in social formations? Do not Lacanians and Zizekians severely simplify the social by reading all social phenomena through the lens of the symbolic and formations of sovereignity (Lacan’s masculine sexuation)? Perhaps, in these simplifications, we create the very problems we’re trying to solve and end up tilting against monsters of our own creation.

Sinthome reaches for new metaphors for thinking the social, and finds productive resonance with certain themes in evolutionary theory, which provide tools for thinking, not the reduction of the social to the natural, but rather a more complex and multilayered conception of the social:

To draw the parallel to Althusser and similarly minded theorists– emphasizing once again that I am not seeking to apply natural selection to social formations, but to think the organization and levels of social formations –where the Althusserian form/matter social model postulates two thing (social structure and individuals), where one thing, the social formation, hierarchically imposes form on another (individuals), Gould’s model envisions a number of different levels in which distinct processes take place. As Gould goes on to say, “…[A]djacent levels my interact in the full range of conceivable ways– in synergy, orthogonally, or in opposition” (73). That is, among the different levels processes taking place can reinforce one another, they can be independent of one another, or they can be in conflict or opposition with one another. Were such a nuanced and multi-leveled conception of the biological carried over into social theory, we would no longer engage in endless hand-wringing as to whether or not agency is possible, nor would we need to postulate theoretical monsters like the Lacanian subject or subjects of truth-procedures. If such moves would no longer be necessary, then this is because we would no longer postulate hierarchical and hegemonic relations among the various strata or levels of social formations. Instead, we would engage in an analysis of these various levels and strata, examining the relations of feedback (positive and negative) that function within them, their relations of synergy, orthogonality, and antagonism, and the various potentials that inhabit these relations. Here we would need to look at the variety of different social formations from individuals, to small associations like groups (the blog collective for instance), to larger groupings and institutions, to global interrelations, treating none of these as hegemonizing all the others, but instead discerning their varying temporalities, organizations, inter-relations, points of antagonism, and so on. This, I think, is far closer to Marx’s own vision– or at least the spirit of his analyses in texts like Grundrisse and Capital.

I agree with this characterisation of Marx’s work – my discussion in the recent HSS paper of how Marx uses the concept of “inversion”, gestures at how I would begin to develop this position. I hope to be able to spend much more time on how this kind of analysis plays out concretely in Capital, in the coming months.

Sinthome’s post also resonates with the recent discussion of Diane Elson’s work (here and here), in which I was exploring Elson’s take on the concept of “determination” in Marx’s work. Much as Sinthome mines concepts used to think evolution, Elson deploys metaphors from chemistry to try to move beyond thinking of structure as something that subsists separately to, and exists in an external causal relationship with, what is structured.

All of these discussions remind me again of one of my favourite characterisations of Marx’s work, from Paul Lafargue’s Reminiscences of Marx:

He saw not only the surface, but what lay beneath it. He examined all the constituent parts in their mutual action and reaction; he isolated each of those parts and traced the history of its development. Then he went on from the thing to its surroundings and observed the reaction of one upon the other. He traced the origin of the object, the changes, evolutions and revolutions it went through, and proceeded finally to its remotest effects. He did not see a thing singly, in itself and for itself, separate from its surroundings: he saw a highly complicated world in continual motion.

His intention was to disclose the whole of that world in its manifold and continually varying action and reaction.

Compare with Sinthome’s lovely description of:

capitalism as a heterogeneous multiplicity with a variety of different levels, often at odds with itself, spinning off in a variety of different directions, calling for nuanced and local analyses and strategies

Apologies for the associative character of this post – systematicity eludes me at the moment… 😉 Much more on these themes in Sinthome’s original post.

Theorising Potential

Via MindBlog, Alison Gopnik reflects on why children spend so much time thinking up imaginary worlds. Starting out from the notion that we are seeking an accurate picture of the world, fiction and imagination (and, one could add, critique) become puzzling problems to be explained. A slight shift of emphasis frames the question very differently:

The greatest success of cognitive science has been our account of the visual system. There’s a world out there sending information to our eyes, and our brains are beautifully designed to recover the nature of that world from that information. I’ve always thought that science, and children’s learning, worked the same way. Fundamental capacities for causal inference and learning let scientists, and children, get an accurate picture of the world around them – a theory. Cognition was the way we got the world into our minds…

I still think that we’re designed to find out about the world, but that’s not our most important gift. For human beings the really important evolutionary advantage is our ability to create new worlds. Look around the room you’re sitting in. Every object in that room – the right angle table, the book, the paper, the computer screen, the ceramic cup was once imaginary. Not a thing in the room existed in the pleistocene. Every one of them started out as an imaginary fantasy in someone’s mind. And that’s even more true of people – all the things I am, a scientist, a philosopher, an atheist, a feminist, all those kinds of people started out as imaginary ideas too. I’m not making some relativist post-modern point here, right now the computer and the cup and the scientist and the feminist are as real as anything can be. But that’s just what our human minds do best – take the imaginary and make it real. I think now that cognition is also a way we impose our minds on the world.

In fact, I think now that the two abilities – finding the truth about the world and creating new worlds – are two sides of the same coins. Theories, in science or childhood, don’t just tell us what’s true – they tell us what’s possible, and they tell us how to get to those possibilities from where we are now. When children learn and when they pretend they use their knowledge of the world to create new possibilities. So do we whether we are doing science or writing novels. I don’t think anymore that Science and Fiction are just both Good Things that complement each other. I think they are, quite literally, the same thing.

HSS2008 Paper

I’m both wired and utterly exhausted. I presented today to the Hegel Summer School conference. Prepping for this event has been a bit all-consuming, and I haven’t been able to get my thoughts together for blogging or even responding to comments. I still won’t respond tonight – I just want to get the paper online, as I promised this at the event, but I need some rest before I can get back into the swing of blogging.

This paper was originally meant to bring together some of what I’ve been working on in the thesis, particularly in the second chapter, with some of what I’ve been writing on the blog, particularly in relation to the reading group posts for the Science of Logic and Phenomenology of Spirit. I had no idea, to be honest, that bringing this material together would prove as productive for me as it has – I now have a much clearer idea (I think…) of what I’ve been trying to say about Marx’s relationship to Hegel and also about the textual strategy of the first chapter of Capital. Most surprising and pleasant to me, was also finally figuring out something I’ve been dancing around for a very long time, about how Marx understands the textual strategy of the first volume of Capital, to relate to what I’ve been calling immanent critique. In a sense, writing this paper was almost too useful for me: now I have to go back and rewrite at least one, and possibly two, chapters in the thesis. One step forward, etc…

An event like this is so unusual and rare. Time to unfold a genuinely complex argument. Space to tackle some extremely difficult theoretical material. Incredible scope for discussion – we went, I think, for something close to three hours. Where many conferences have left me longing for the blog, where ideas can be worked out in detail and the discussion can sprawl, this conference is truly special. It was an extraordinary opportunity, and I’m humbled and a bit stunned by the time and attention and ideas and energy that the participants have put into the event.

My head is spinning from the ideas that came forward from discussion – I’m utterly unable to summarise any of it. I had been planning to wait to post the paper until I could perhaps say something about the issues that came up in discussion, but I’m realising that it may take quite a while for all of that to sink in. I’ll put the paper up now, and will most likely be working through the ideas sparked by the discussion in a more embedded way in whatever it is I write over the next while.

I’m conscious of many debts for this paper. The online and in-person participants in the Science of Logic reading group have been of enormous help as I’ve tried to get my head around at least a small slice of this text. Wildly Parenthetical took the time to read over an earlier version of this paper, and to workshop concepts, and generally to force me to be a little bit clearer (and perhaps bolder ;-P). L Magee somehow got drafted into chairing my session, and managed this last-minute appointment exceptionally well. 🙂 A number of people attended to provide moral support (one of my lasting memories from this event will be of my head of department, overhearing someone ask me during a coffee break, “So is your university a major centre for Hegel scholarship?”, and almost choking on his tea…). And others I haven’t named individually provided genuinely formative feedback on draft work.

I’ll place the intro above the fold to give a sense of the general theme, and the rest below, as of course it’s an hour-long talk, and so a bit bulky for the main page…

Fighting for What We Mean

I’m going to be talking today about Hegel and Marx, two thinkers who analyse relational networks of mutually-determining phenomena. This style of theory makes it extremely difficult to say anything, unless you intend to say everything. Marx and Hegel say “everything” in works totalling thousands of pages – in Marx’s case, works that were never actually completed. Today, we have an hour. An hour in which I have tried to say at least something – but have perhaps included a bit more of everything than might have been ideal. What I suggest is that, particularly if you aren’t familiar with the texts I am analysing, you not worry about the details of the argument, but focus instead on the overarching contour. I can review the details if needed during discussion, and I will place the talk online after this event for anyone who wants to work through the arguments more closely.

The title of the event today – “Solidarity or Community: Philosophy and Antidotes to Fragmentation” – frames the problem confronting us in a very specific way. It suggests that:

  1. fragmentation – understood as the breakdown of the social bonds connecting us to one another – is a central theoretical and practical problem for our time – something that requires an “antidote”;
  2. two potential “antidotes” present themselves immediately to us: one, encompassed in the concept of “solidarity” and the other, encompassed in the concept of “community”; and
  3. philosophy – specifically, Hegelian philosophy – may be able to help us understand why social bonds are breaking down, or how we can prevent or correct this breakdown.

The title suggests that something – let’s call it capitalism – is corrosive of social bonds – that it erodes such bonds, and that such an erosion is a bad thing, something that deserves to be the target of critique. Yet capitalism is presented here, not simply as something that produces negative effects, but as a negation – as something that strips away, leaving us to confront a gap or an absence – which then must be filled by some new sort of positive social bond, in order to avoid fragmentation.

The question I want to consider today is what might be missing from this picture: what are we at risk of overlooking, if we thematise capitalism one-sidedly, as a corrosive force that erodes social bonds? Is there any sense in which we can grasp capitalism as constitutive or generative of some particular kind of social bond? If capitalism can be understood as generative in this way, then why is the problem of social fragmentation so striking? These questions, I suggest, carry us into the heart of Marx’s motivation for appropriating Hegel’s work, when he sets out to write Capital.

Hegel is perhaps Marx’s most consistent theoretical reference point, and Marx critically appropriates a number of Hegelian concepts in his work. Today, I want to focus on two concepts that are particularly important in making sense of the textual strategy of Capital: Hegel’s concept of “science”, and the associated methodology Hegel sets out in the Science of Logic; and a complex set of arguments relating to appearance, essence, and inversion, which Hegel makes with different emphases in a number of works – for today’s talk, I will focus on the version of the argument Hegel presents in the early chapters of the Phenomenology of Spirit.

When thinking about how to appropriate Hegel’s work for critical social theory, his concept of science or his arguments relating to appearance and essence are not necessarily the ones that most immediately leap to mind. It is more common to turn to Hegel’s own more direct reflections on civil society, the state, and other recognisably “social” topics, to discuss Hegel’s comments on labour and the master-bondsman relation, or else to explore the complex theme of mutual recognition. These dimensions of Hegel’s work are logical starting points for a social theoretic appropriation, as they seem most directly to touch on questions that we recognise intuitively as “social” – questions relating to intersubjectivity, social relations, or social institutions.

It is therefore particularly striking that Marx’s relies quite heavily on the more abstract, “philosophical” – and, in fact, “idealist” – elements of Hegel’s project, when developing the structure and method of Capital. Today I’ll briefly sketch what I mean by this claim, in order to render more visible the tacit methodology at work in Marx’s text. Focussing particularly on the categories of the commodity and labour power, I then illustrate how recognising Hegel’s influence can help us make sense of elements of Marx’s argument and presentational style that are otherwise easy to overlook. From this foundation, I return to my opening question of whether something might be missed, if we conceptualise capitalism as a negation – as something that corrodes social bonds – without asking at the same time what sort of distinctive social bond capitalism might also generate. Read more of this post

Conversations on History, Memory, and Agency

A very nice cross-blog discussion on conceptualising agency has been underway for some days now, spiralling out from Sinthome’s original post on Scene and Act (readers from here might be amused at the thesis precis I seem to have decided to write in the comments over there – I appreciate Sinthome’s patience with the rather extended off-the-cuff reflections I’ve posted on my project in the comments at his site). The related post over here led to a nice conversation in the comments – which raises, amongst other topics, the loose coupling of agents with contexts, due both to the porousness of context and the selectivity of agents. Sinthome has now picked up on some of themes in a new post over at Larval Subjects, which has in turn drawn an extended response from Wildly Parenthetical. What I wanted to try to to here was to pick up on some elements of both of these most recent responses – with the caveat that it’s been an exhausting day, and so this may end up being more of a pointer to interesting discussions elsewhere, than a substantive contribution.

Both of the new posts in the discussion express a level of uncertainty over how to think the possibility for agency – understood in this discussion, in terms of the possibility for the introduction of something new and unanticipated into a situation – with the tools provided by the theorists who provide major reference points for each interlocutor – Deleuze, for Sinthome, and Merleau-Ponty, for Wildly.

Sinthome, concerned with questions of individuation, begins by drawing out a tension that arises in Deleuze’s work. On the one hand, Deleuze provides powerful tools for thinking about individuation as a process intrinsically connected to a certain milieu – thus avoiding the perils of abstraction (which Sinthome, following Hegel, understands in terms of severing an entity from the relational network that constitutes that entity). This approach, however, leaves uncertain how agency might be thought, risking a determinism in which an agent is conceptualised as nothing more than an actualisation of potentials of a pre-personal field not of its own making. Such a determinism, however, sits in tension with the evidently critical impetus of Deleuze’s thought – with his avowed criticism of philosophies of identity, and his preference for philosophies of difference. Sinthome wonders whether a performative contradiction or tension might lie between what Deleuze says and what he does – as Sinthome expresses this:

Supposing that for Deleuze it is the intensive differences that compose being that are doing all the work (what Deleuze refers to as intensities, inequalities, or asymmetries in Difference and Repetition), there is a curious contradiction between Deleuze’s account of the nature of being and individuation, and what Deleuze actually does. On the one hand, Deleuze gives us an ontological vision of being as composed of pre-personal, asymmetrical intensive differences resolving themselves in the form of the actual entities we see in the world around us. There is no centralized control here, no plan, no goal, etc. Here we are actualizations of the intensive differences into which we’re thrown and develop and our thoughts are the epiphenomena of these processes (like Freud’s differential unconscious where there is no centralized homunculus controlling thought, but rather just a play of energetic differentials producing thought).

Yet on the other hand, Deleuze, at various points, expresses a preference for difference over recognition and identity, for the nomadic over the sedentary, for the anarchic over the state. That is, for Deleuze, philosophy is guilty of having chosen models of recognition, identity, the sedentary, and the state, and the philosopher of difference is exhorted to choose difference, nomadism, and the anarchic (literally the “without principle”). Yet if we are patients of our thought rather than agents of our thought, how can there be any question of choosing one way or another? If I am a thinker like Kant, wouldn’t I simply be actualized in such a way as to model phenomena in terms of recognition, identity, the sedentary, and the state? Wouldn’t this decision be out of my hands? My point is this: The presence of these judgments and decisions in Deleuze’s thought, at odds as it is without what looks like an ontology that would prohibit these sorts of decisions, indicates that his philosophy is haunted by an agent or agency even if this agent or agency isn’t itself explicitly theorized. The question would be one of rendering such a conception of agency explicit in an ontology that is otherwise so scenic in its orientation.

I should stress that Sinthome is cautious on the specific question of whether Deleuze might square this circle at some point in his work – the object of this post is rather to use this discussion of Deleuze to open the problem of how to think agency within relational philosophy. Sinthome does this by first sketching how a similar problem arises in sociological attempts to correct for abstracted forms of individualism, by drawing attention to conditions not of individual’s choosing, which are then viewed as leading to individual behaviour. Such approaches pose the question of how it becomes possible to think beyond the sociological “scene” in which we are all embedded – and the potential paradox of the sociologist who appears to abstract themselves from the very scene to which they are drawing attention. Sinthome riffs on an expression of Luhmann’s to underscore the point:

As Luhmann liked to say “we cannot see what we cannot see”. And what we see least of all is the place from which we see.

A solution, Sinthome suggests, may require thinking through what he calls the “circumference” of the “scene” – the boundaries of the context through which the agent is individuated. Sinthome draws particular attention here to the temporal boundaries of the field of individuation – to the ways in which our “context” is not a perpetually synchronic, bounded instant, but instead riddled through with strands linking us to other times, due to potentials sedimented in memory, language, and archives that offer avenues for individuation not easily located in a single “context” as conventionally understood. While our receptivity to these potentials is of course also mediated through our individuation in some particular present, the particular cross-connections that our present develops with some specific past are not solely and purely determined by the present. Sinthome seems to point here to something that reminds me of a Benjaminian constellation:

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

This line of thought reminds me that I need to develop much more the peculiar way in which I take capitalism to sediment and reproduce particular pasts, while also encouraging particular orientations to history – I mention this here only as a placeholder to myself, and as a supplement, not a corrective, to the suggestions Sinthome makes in his post. In the discussion Sinthome and I were having here, before he pulled his points together into this post, I had also suggested that “circumference” can be thought within a context – particularly when context is not conceptualised as some sort of qualitatively uniform substance or (to take the old-fashioned term still current in some of the foundational sociology I periodically foist on the reading group ;-P) “spirit” of a time, but where context itself is viewed as process and as constellation – and therefore as intrinsically presenting those individuated within it with a multiplicity of forms of individuation, in which different moments of the “same” context can open radically different possibilities, providing experiential exposure to conflictual potentials. I plan to develop these points in greater detail, if I can manage to lay the theoretical groundwork adequately through the work I’m doing on Marx. None of this, however, deflects the claim Sinthome is making: that our experiential reach is not circumscribed by some temporal boundary that cordons off and hermetically seals our own time from others – and that aleatory or, for that matter, conditioned reaches across time can react back in substantive ways on our own historical moment. Sinthome brings these points back to Deleuze in his concluding reflections:

As Deleuze will say, all of my loves are a repetition of that love that was never present. Here there is an amorous attachment, a trace memory, that perpetually interferes with the determinative factors of the successive and simultaneous, guaranteeing that I am never quite in or of my time.

It would seem then that the place to look for something like agency in Deleuze would be in these temporal facts, in his discussions of repetition (especially the second psychoanalytic account of repetition in chapter two of Difference and Repetition), where Deleuze shows how the mnemonic is a condition for the spiritual. Perhaps here, in these amorous attachments and identifications we begin to see something like the possibility of an agency within an immanent field of individuations.

Wildly, though uncomfortable with the vocabulary of “agency”, pursues a parallel set of concerns with reference to the possibility for the development of a subject, and the concept of “sedimentation” in Merleau-Ponty. Focussing on developing terms that grasp an embodied subjectivity, Wildly discusses the ways in which our experiences carve grooves or paths of least resistance into which our future experiences then also tend to be channelled by default. The question for Wildly then becomes how the perception or experience of otherness becomes possible, once “sedimentation” is posited to operate in terms of the metaphor of ever-deepening channels into which new experience falls – if “what I can see is shaped by what I have already seen”. Wildly both notes, and criticises, Butler’s suggestion that the subject can never reproduce perfectly, arguing that Butler’s approach reinforces an individualistic concept of agency that itself requires contestation. Wildly’s real concern, however, is the tacit universalism of the notion of sedimentation itself: the underlying model of uniform modes of embodiment that seems to figure as an abstract negation – as something not itself a positive or contestable form of embodiment, but simply a sort of “shell” or empty form into which positive contents fall. “Sedimentation” functions here as natural – as a fate – and what then varies is only what particular content comes to be sedimented. Is there some way, Wildly asks, to think of this form – of sedimentation itself – as something contestable? In her own words:

The problem with conceptualising of subjectivity as a product of such sedimentation is that it creates little space for movement: if the only way that an experience is permitted to matter (to the embodied subject) is through the filter of what has already occurred, then difference as difference won’t be perceived. It can’t be, for we have no way to see what we have not already seen. The new other that I encounter thus remains comprehensible insofar as he or she is understood as ‘like’ what I have seen before. That which exceeds that graspability doesn’t, on this conception of the embodied subject, even figure for me.

In other words, we wind up with something totalising here, if we trust that the very nature of the body is one that shapes itself through sedimentation.

Wildly suggests that the notion of sedimentation, in spite of its best intentions and its political mobilisation in the service of certain kinds of denaturalisation, might itself naturalise something quite pivotal, covering over the possibility of a more shattering and disruptive experience of otherness – something that might alter the default sedimentary “frame” that otherwise shapes and normalises new experiences in the mould of the old. Wildly holds out the possibility for a more anarchic type of encounter, one that “offers me an elsewise, another way to be… a way of being in the world unlike what has been, and unlike any other…” Something in light of which the tacit positivity of the sedimentary body can be revealed, not as a neutral form into which specific contents are deposited in time, but as itself a contentful structure – not a neutral or natural fate that must befall us, but only something experienced as natural until disrupted by the possibility for another way of being in the world.

Wildly will know that I have a weakness for arguments that reposition forms as contents 😉 I’ll be writing more in the weeks to come on the discussion of “physiological labour” in Capital, which will loop back to these concerns in a very indirect and distant way. Lots of room here for further discussion and elaboration.

The summaries above do justice to neither post – readers should look at the originals. And apologies to Sinthome and Wildly if I haven’t adequately captured what you were each trying to say, and also apologies that I’ve found so little to add – my main reaction to both posts is that I need to take up these issues in work I have underway, and so the impact of these posts on me will likely not be visible until I work the concepts up into more formal writing.

All the World’s a Stage – And We Merely Players?

scene from As You Like ItSinthome from Larval Subjects has a very nice post up today, reviewing and improvising around Kenneth Burke’s A Grammar of Motives. Sinthome appropriates Burke’s work to discuss questions relating to how different theoretical and philosophical approaches thematise the relationship of agency and context, showing how Burke’s system can be useful in grasping the emphases of differing approaches:

Burke proposes five broad categories (his pentad) to discuss motives: Scene, act, agent, agency, purpose. Acts are done in a scene, by an agent, often with some particular tool or means (agency), for the sake of some end. By Scene Burke is thus referring to the background or setting of an action. Agents, of course, are those doing the action. Acts are the acts done. Agency is the means by which it is done (a tool, speech, one’s body, and so on). And purpose is that for the sake of which the action is done. It is necessary to emphasize that these terms are extremely broad. Scene, for example, could be language as when talked about Lacan in the context of how the subject is formed in the field of the Other. However, language can be an act or agency in other contexts. Similarly, when Lucretius claims that everything is composed of combinations of indivisible atoms falling in the void, he is talking about scene. When Marx talks about conditions of production he is talking about scene. When Freud talks about drives and the unconscious he is talking about scene. When a religious person talks about God’s plan he is talking about scene. All of these are competing visions of scene. When Walter Ong talks about how the technology of writing transforms the nature of thought, he is talking about how an agency transforms the agent that uses it. Yet in another context, when Foucault or Kuhn talks about the impersonal murmur of language in which we find ourselves thrown, writing, archival texts, are no longer agencies, but are scenes.

Burke’s pentad is of interest in that it allows us to see, a bit more clearly, where the philosophy is placing its emphasis. For example, Sartre, Husserl, Kant, and so on, would be philosophies of the agent. The agent is placed front and center and other elements fall into the background. Most contemporary philosophies in French theory place emphasis on the scene, as in the case of Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault, and many variants of Marxist thought and critical theory. More recently we’ve begun to see philosophies of the act, as in the case of Badiou or Zizek. And so on.

For Sinthome, the real interest in Burke’s work doesn’t lie so much in its classificatory potentials, however, as in the ways in which the classification makes it possible to grasp limitations or blindspots in particular forms of theory. Sinthome explores this issue with reference to limitations in theories that over-emphasise scene:

whether we’re talking about Foucault’s difficulties in explaining how counter-power arises from power, difficulties among the “linguistic idealists” in explaining how it is possible to think anything new if we are products of language, Frankfurt school theorists who endlessly ape the questions “how could this be thought at such and such a particular time?” or self-reflexive questions about “how the critic is able to adopt a critical stances when that critic is itself embedded within the system?” and so on. These are problems that emerge specifically when the scenic element takes over as the overdetermining instance of motives or when scene is the ultimate explanans for everything else. Thus we say that agents are formed within scenes or situations (whether scene be understood as language, power, economics, social fields, etc), and that as products of scenes acts can only arise from scenes and return to scenes. Put differently, under this view it is impossible for an act to exceed the way in which it is structured by situations, for the act is a descendant of the scene just as the son is a descendant of the father (and is said to thereby share the father’s characteristics).

What is prohibited, it would seem, is the introduction of something new into the situation… Something that would transform the configuration of the situation or scene itself. What is required, it would seem, is the thought of an act unconditioned by scenes.

Sinthome moves from here to a discussion of the act – the possibility of a performance that might depart the text of the scene.

This post is interesting and rich in its own right, and the original contains much more than I have reproduced here: readers should follow up at Larval Subjects. Sinthome’s post reminded me, though, of several issues on which I haven’t written anywhere near enough, or with sufficient clarity, here, and which I’m sure lead to (my own!!) recurrent misrepresentations of my theoretical positions, particularly with reference to concepts like immanence and reflexivity. One of these issues I raised in a comment at Larval Subjects (still in moderation at the moment), which I’ll reproduce here as the context relates to some of what I’ve begun to write in the thesis-related posts on Marx. In a very rough way, this comment thematises two issues on which I plan to do much more writing:

(1) the issue that the relationship of “agency” and “scene” may not be able to be posed abstractly – that this relationship itself may be produced or change over time; and

(2) the issue that Marx adopts a methodology that involves unfolding potentials for agency immanently from within its object, not as a general methodology, but as a specific substantive claim about the determinate characteristics of capitalism. This specific substantive claim does not require a denial of the possibility for other sorts of agency that might operate in a capitalist or other context.

Although all of the thesis-related material on Marx talks to some degree about how Marx understands the relationship between forms of subjectivity and forms of “objectivity”, I do have a chapter planned down the track on Marx’s very strange thematisation of the reproduction of capital as a play, in which social actors adopt roles – performing and thereby gaining practical experience with certain dispositions, without these roles, however, determining which empirical social actors will perform them, or dictating that social actors who do perform them are thereby reduced to these roles, or predeciding how the dispositions associated with a particular role relate to dispositions that arise in other ways: in Brandomian terms, there’s a lot of “messy retail business” happening in this aspect of Marx’s theory. But that’s a topic for a different post, when I can develop the concepts much more adequately.

For the moment, I wanted to reproduce over here the comment I’ve written at Larval Subjects, which addresses points one and two above, albeit in a very truncated fashion – storing the comment over here will hopefully prod me to come back to this issue more adequately over the coming months. My comment hangs off the quotation from Sinthome’s post with which this passage begins:

Frankfurt school theorists who endlessly ape the questions “how could this be thought at such and such a particular time?” or self-reflexive questions about “how the critic is able to adopt a critical stances when that critic is itself embedded within the system?”

This may sound counter-intuitive, but this is precisely what the first generation Frankfurt School theorists don’t do. They are responding to a situation in which the ideals of a particular kind of Marxism – socialised means of production, centralised state planning, etc. – appear to have been realised, only to reveal that it is historically quite possible to “realise” such things, without this carrying any emancipatory consequences in its wake. They therefore become intensely critical of theories of “scene” – in the sense that the reduction of agency to “scene” becomes, for them, the target of their critique. What they don’t do, however, is make the assumption that the reduction of agent to scene is a simple theoretical or conceptual illusion. In other words, they historicise the question of the production of agency, rejecting the assumption that the conditions of possibility for, or the nature of, agency should always be thought in the same way.

In this, perhaps without realising it, they were pointing back to Marx, whose development of an immanent critique of capitalism was not predicated on a metaphysical claim about the relationship of scene, agency, etc., but was instead a thematisation of certain specific potentials for certain sorts of agency that arise within this social configuration. What often gets overlooked in readings of Capital is the very explicit discussion of contingency and of phenomena that specifically cannot be theorised – such things are all over the text, explicitly labelled as such. The distinctiveness of capitalism, for Marx, lies in that its process of reproduction involves certain sorts of “necessity” than can be theorised: like the Frankfurt School after him, Marx takes this “necessity” as the target of his critique, and also does not believe that it will drive toward any automatic emancipatory overcoming of the social form. He does, though, think that a grasp of the ways in which this necessity is produced can say something about potentials for agency now.

I take Marx to be doing something odd with notions of immanence and reflexivity – with a methodology associated with these concepts that, in key respects, he borrows (with critical amendments) from Hegel: I do not take him to be endorsing the position that critique must account for itself immanently and reflexively as some sort of general methodological principle – I suspect he would take that as an indefensible metaphysical claim (certainly I know that I would take it as an indefensible metaphysical claim). What I think he is saying, in adopting an immanent and reflexive methodology in order to discuss capitalism, is that this particular object has strange properties – that the object is produced such that key characteristics, including certain potentials for agency, will be overlooked if its process of reproduction isn’t thematised through an immanent analysis that draws out those particular potentials – because, for determinate reasons that are specific to this object, another form of analysis is very likely to naturalise the object in ways that obscure potentials for transformation.

In this sense, Marx is repurposing Hegel’s notion of a “science”, and the methodology that accompanies this notion, to a very different effect and with a very different set of premises – not least with the goal of addressing possible challenges that his own theoretical approach is “utopian”. Marx is aware that the naturalisation of a social context can take a number of forms – most not as naive as the simple claim that things have, e.g., always been this way. Many forms of naturalisation understand the historicity or the contingency of the context, but assert, e.g., various forms of technical justification that things must be reproduced as they are: large populations require it, complexity requires it, post-traditional sociality requires it, etc. The reason Marx offers an immanent critique, in my reading, is not that he denies that agency could possibly arise in some way unpredictable with reference to the “scene” provided by the reproduction of capital, but that an immanent approach allows him to refute these forms of naturalisation, by demonstrating very clearly that the transformations that represent his critical ideals, involve the appropriation of moments that are currently produced in the process of the reproduction of capital. The notions of immanence and reflexivity in Marx’s work, I think, are aimed here, rather than directed to the question of how agency can or cannot arise in some prohibitive sense.

With reference to this question, it’s interesting that, when Marx decides to compare Epicurean to Democritean philosophy in his student work, what draws him to Epicurus is, in no small part, Marx’s criticism of the determinism of the other approach – something that Marx rejects as being a sign of the one-sidedness of the theory. These early interests should perhaps be a caution to approaches that want to read Marx as a theorist of the determination by the base…

Scratchpad: From Something, Nothing Comes

Okay. Below the fold is the preliminary draft of the chapterised version of my post from the other day on indeterminacy as a form of determination (doesn’t that line make you wanna peek beneath the fold?). The last third of this chapter is still very undeveloped – basically, if you’re reading, once you get to the point where I start talking about the relationship of all of this to Hegel’s essence/appearance argument, the text from that point gets really sketchy and dubious. If it helps, I’m aware of this, but wanted to write at least a set of placeholder notes for things I want to discuss, when I’m able to revise that section properly. I may not be able to get back to this draft for some days, however, and so I thought I might as well toss it up in its current form. The main line of argument – which relates to how you can provide a socially-immanent explanation for certain categories that appear transhistorical in Marx’s work – is (I hope!!) sufficiently clearly developed for the moment. The points that remain undeveloped will always – in this chapter – be sort of foreshadows of material I can’t discuss in great detail until I’ve set up a few more layers of this argument.

Those who read the version of the previous chapter posted to the blog may notice that the transition at the end of the previous chapter draft doesn’t “work”. That’s because, partially in response to feedback received here, I significantly expanded the previous chapter – to the point that it got a little bit cancerous, and so I split it into two chapters, dividing off the programmatic bits, from the discussion of Marx’s relationship to Hegel, and adding more material to both of those discussions. So I suppose I can now say I’m working on the draft of the third chapter of my thesis. 🙂

Usual caveats apply to the content below the fold – with the additional caveat that, for some reason, I’ve found sleep almost impossible for the past several days, and so I’m really not in the position where I can “hear” this text. I think it’s still okay, but it may be much rougher than I realise. 🙂 Here goes…

Read more of this post

Passing Class

I have been somewhat saddened to see the turn taken by at least one small part of the discussion started by Dr. Crazy at Reassigned Time, whose thoughtful post on why she teaches literature elicited what I took at first to be a more lighthearted critique from Joseph Kugelmass – perhaps I mistook the tone: it had been a long day, and I was overtired from writing. Unfortunately, this has turned into a more heated conflict – one I probably ought to stay out of, since I am buried in work right now. In fairness to Dr. Crazy, though, and since when I wrote my previous post, I wouldn’t have realised the need to be clearer where I stand in relation to the substantive issues in what has now become a more serious dispute, I thought I should at least go on record. Readers may be more interested in following up directly with the posts at Reassigned Time (here and here) and the Kugelmass Episodes (here and here). There is also a very good discussion percolating away over at Acephalous.

Some of the heat in this dispute has revolved around a matter of cross-blog etiquette – around the question of whether Dr. Crazy’s post, written in a personal voice developed to communicate with an established community of readers, and intended to voice a personal perspective and individual motivations, was an appropriate target for a more abstract and philosophical form of engagement. More substantively, the debate has revolved around issues of social class and the role of higher education in enabling students to achieve higher socioeconomic status – and, most controversially, teaching students to “pass” in class contexts other than the ones in which they grew up. Dr. Crazy’s original post suggested that one – one among many, but still one – of her goals in teaching literature was the following:

To give students a vocabulary for discussing things that are complex, which is ultimately about socializing them to talk, think, and feel in ways that allow them to be upwardly mobile. Most of my students do not come from families that discuss books over dinner – or art, or advances in science, etc. If they don’t learn how to have conversations about these things, they face a disadvantage when they leave college and enter the broader world. (I should say, I think this may be one of the most compelling arguments for the humanities in the context of higher education at my kind of institution, as it doesn’t matter what degree one has if one can’t hobnob with people from higher class backgrounds when one is done.)

In his original post, the discussion that followed in the comments, and now a new post, Joseph has been objecting with increasing volume to this point. He finds in this comment a patronisation that, to be honest, I can’t hear myself – perhaps my own class background is a bit too similar to those of the students Dr. Crazy discusses – and I have, of course, written previously about my reaction to colleagues who occasionally believe that there is something elitist in trying to help students learn to open the doors that can sometimes be opened only through certain “academic” ways of knowing.

Joe raises more serious concerns about the issue of helping students learn to “pass”. Joe worries that this concept: already expresses a devaluation of working class culture; could easily lead students to adopt middle class ideals – including, perhaps, the ideology that social outcomes derive solely from personal effort – in an uncritical way; is unrealistic, in the sense that academic contexts are unlikely to provide an adequate ability to advance socially, and even more unlikely to equip students with a sufficiently robust “habitus” to blend seamlessly into middle class culture; and could constitute a form of policing or gatekeeping:

Etiquette has two faces: it is a form of courtesy, and also a form of policing. Passing is both empowerment and entrapment. If passing was of vital importance to a particular student population, so much so that it became a primary lens for their whole educational experience, I could imagine building a wonderful literature course around it. It would, like any course, perform its share of socialization, and it would comprehend the desire to pass as other, but it would not settle the matter comfortably. That cannot happen until the injustice itself has passed.

It’s difficult for me to know what to say to all this, perhaps because my own background gets in the way. I’m unclear what the “output” would be from Joe’s approach – what pedagogical principles are being advocated. Injustice is not going to pass during the term. Most of us are engaged in the problem of how to teach now, with the students who exist before us, with the backgrounds they have, in a world that has existing power relations that students must navigate, unjust or not. These are conditions not of our choosing – or theirs. Hic Rhodus, hic salta. This is where we must make our leap.

Something about the whole exchange reminded me of an interview Marx gave late in life. He listed the goals of the International Society – universal male suffrage, health and safety regulations, freedom of assembly, legislation by the people, etc. The reporter, obviously expecting a more radical programme, said:

“But,” I said, “socialists generally look upon the transformation of the means of labor into the common property of society as the grand climax of the movement.”

Marx replied:

“Yes; we say that this will be the outcome of the movement, but it will be a question of time, of education, and the institution of higher social status.”