It is always a somewhat uncanny experience to be read by others and hear how they situate your own thought. I am pleased to discover that there is a problematic or conceptual arch that inhabits the musings I post here as I experience my own thought as meandering, anarchic, and without coherence. N.Pepperell of Rough Theory has written a nice response to my discussion yesterday on constellations and populations, raising some important and forceful questions. N.Pepperell writes:

Tacitly, this formulation is not completely adequate to the framework Sinthome has outlined, which would require an analysis of the constellations or assemblages that give rise to such abstract thought – and, for that matter, to the alternative form of thought that would be oriented to really existent phenomena. Such analyses, however, are difficult to provide within the confines of a blog post and, in any event, the point of this post was to outline concepts, not to put these concepts into play against any particular concrete example to which they might be applied. My comments here are therefore simply placeholders noting where Sinthome’s concepts would point over time.

What I did want to suggest, though – and I must necessarily be very gestural here – is that it may be worth considering what peculiar characteristics an assemblage might need to possess, for it to generate particular kinds of abstract thought as one aspect of its distinctive forms of self-organisation. This is, as I mentioned in another discussion over at Larval Subjects, what I take Marx to have been attempting in Capital. What is interesting in Marx’s analysis is that he doesn’t interpret the abstract forms of thought he analyses as conceptual – as something that result from generalising or abstracting away from more concrete, really existent, phenomena. Instead, he interprets them as plausible expressions of forms of abstract social practice: Marx’s work, as I understand it, suggests the possibility that abstract forms of thought might express a dimension of social practice that enacts an on-the-ground indifference to the determinate specificity of concrete entities – a dimension of social practice that appears as it is, abstract.

In such a case, perversely, only abstract theoretical categories would be appropriate, as the really existing configuration possesses practically abstract dimensions – it generates what I generally call real abstractions. Of course, in this case, those abstract categories would only themselves be adequately grasped once they were no longer understood – as they tend phenomenologically to present themselves – as conceptual abstractions or generalisations obtained by stripping away the specificities of concrete experience. Instead, certain forms of abstraction would have to be recognised as the historical, material specificity of a particular dimension of concrete practice – a recognition that would entail a form of theoretical work like what Sinthome proposes, which would seek to uncover the way in which a particular form of abstraction was assembled through determinate forms of practice.

I confess that at the moment I do not have a response to this question. The motivation for a discussion of populations and constellations is to avoid the common theoretical move of dismissing certain social movements as not being genuine instances of the kind in question. For instance, one says “x’s are not real Marxists” or “x’s are not real Muslims”, despite the fact that x’s are a really existing group acting in the social world and interacting with others groups. In a certain sense, then, discussion of populations and constellations is a call for “realism” and nominalism where the configuration of the social is concerned. In this regard, phrases of the form “x’s are not y’s” come to be seen not as reports of the true essence of something, but rather as rhetorical strategies surrounding antagonistic relations among groups struggling for hegemony over politically potent signifiers, social networks, and social institutions. As a matter of principle, it follows as a consequence of my materialism that what N.Pepperell says here must be the case. A genuinely consistent materialism cannot maintain a distinction between ideas on the one hand and material reality on the other, treating the latter as real and the former as mental entities, but must instead treat thoughts themselves as material realities. At this point an entire series of difficulties emerge surrounding questions of representation, for the idea– in my previous post the “concept” or “abstraction” –both functions to represent something else but is also something in its own right. As a further difficulty, such a strong distinction between “words and things” implicitly suggests that the theorist is transcendent to what the theorist theorizes, thereby undermining the position of immanence. Would it be going too far to suggest that the abstraction is itself an element of the assemblage it purports to represent? The remainder of the post is well worth the read.

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