Towards the beginning of his Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre writes:

“How can we accept this doubling of personality? How can a man who is lost in the world, permeated by an absolute movement coming from everything, also be this consciousness sure both of itself and of the Truth. It is true that Naville observes that ‘these centres of reaction elaborate their behaviour according to possibilities which, at the level both of the individual and of the species, are subject to an unalterable and strictly determined development…’, and that ‘experimentally established reflex determinations and integrations enable one to appreciate the narrowing margin within which organic behaviour can be said to be autonomous’. We obviously agree with this; but the important thing is Naville’s application of these observations, which inevitably lead to the theory of reflection, to endowing man with constituted reason; that is, to making thought into a form of behaviour strictly conditioned by the world (which of course it is), while neglecting to say that it is also knowledge of the world. How could ’empirical’ man think? Confronted with his own history, he is as uncertain as when he is confronted by Nature, for the law does not automatically produce knowledge of itself– indeed, if it is passively suffered, it transforms its object into passivity, and thus deprives it of any possibility of collecting its atomised experiences into a synthetic unity. Meanwhile, at the level of generality where he is situated, transcendental man, contemplating laws, cannot grasp individuals. Thus, in spite of ourselves, we are offered two thoughts, neither of which is able to think us, or, for that matter, itself: the thought which is passive, given, and discontinuous, claims to be knowledge but is really delayed effect of external causes, while the thought which is active, synthetic and desituated, knows nothing of itself and, completely immobile, contemplates a world without thought. Our doctrinaires have mistaken for a real recognition of Necessity what is actually only a particular form of alienation, which makes their own lived thinking appear as an object for a universal Consciousness, and which reflects on it as though it were the thought of the other.

We must stress this crucial fact: Reason is neither a bone nor an accident. (30-31)

Recently I’ve been making a sustained effort to work my way through Marx’s massive Capital, while also returning to Deleuze’s collaborative works with Guattari, in a sustained attempt to think in a more concrete, rigorous, and philosophical way about the nature of the social (as opposed to dogmatically making sociological and psychoanalytic claims without grounding them philosophically). In certain respects, I think questions of how to think about the social and the Other have haunted philosophy for a century. With the emergence of the social sciences in the form of anthropology/ethnography, linguistics, psychoanalysis, sociology, history, and sociology, philosophy, I would argue, found its assumptions significantly challenged. Since the 17th century the schema of philosophical thought has been relatively straightforward: there is a subject whose contents of consciousness are immanent and immediate to itself (whether one is an empiricist or a rationalist) and therefore are certain (hence the fact Hume is certain of his impressions but can maintain doubt maintaining the objects that presumably cause them), and there is an object that the subject seeks to know. The social sciences significantly complicate this schema. For example, Levi-Strauss is able to show, in The Savage Mind and the Mythologiques, that there is an unconscious thought process that takes place, as it were, behind the back of the subject, both determining the thought process of the subject and creating a symbolic-categorical web, “thrown” over the world, sorting objects in various ways that can’t simply be reduced to the predicates or properties (the “primary qualities”) that belong to the “objects themselves”. This is the significance of Levi-Strauss’s extensive, often exhausting, discussion of how plants are sorted in The Savage Mind and his analysis of how the symbolic categories of the /raw/, the /boiled/, and the /cooked/ function with regard to the sorting of objects in the world (I use the convention “//” to denote the status of these entities as signifiers rather than predicates or “primary qualities” really inhering in an object). Similar results emerge from psychoanalysis– particularly in its Lacanian formulation, though also in Freud –linguistics, economics, sociology, and so on.

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In all of these cases, it appears that the possibility of establishing immanence is significantly called into question, for the subject’s alleged self-immanence is here effaced, as is any particular identity in the object. Nor do I think philosophy has yet done a very good job thinking through these issues. Yes, there are glimmers. Derrida, in Speech and Phenomena, rigorously thinks through repetition, the signifier, and the trace, simultaneously subjecting the subject/object hegemony to a critique and opening the way towards thinking this third domain, the domain of the social, philosophically or conceptually, rather than simply dogmatically asserting claims drawn from various social sciences. Levinas and Others have attempted to carefully think through the Other, or that which has perpetually haunted the history of philosophy without directly being thematized. Again, Levinas accomplishes this philosophically or conceptually. Dialectics provides a number of promising avenues through its capacity to think the identity of identity and difference, or the mutual imbrication of the same and the other, but still this hasn’t been nearly worked through as systematically as it needs to be. What is here needed is a sort of borromean knot, where the regions of subject, world, and other (in all their forms) are carefully thought through in their conjunction and disjunction. I don’t yet know how to do this as, in many respect, it is equivalent to the yet unsolved “three body problem” in physics.

Anyway, back to Sartre. One of the reasons I’ve been drawn back to the rather unlikely source of Sartre’s later writings is that he seems to be one of the few places in social and political thought– to my limited knowledge –where the focus is not on the critique of social organizations, but rather on the formation, the morphogenesis, of groups. As is so often the case with works that fall into oblivion (recall Lucretius prior to the Enlightenment, or Hegel early in the last century), only to suddenly become relevant again when a shift takes place in the field of questions being posed, Sartre’s late work strikes me as being poised for a fresh reading (ask me a again whether I still think this in a few weeks). A good deal of this has to do with the way in which social and political theory is now returning to questions of group formation as opposed to social critique. Moreover, of the star of Badiou continues to rise as it now appears to be rising, there will likely be renewed interest in Sartre’s late work as a result of the decisive influence it had on Badiou’s own thought. When we look at figures such as Negri and Hardt, Zizek’s more recent works since The Ticklish Subject, and Badiou’s analyses of truth-procedures in Being and Event and elsewhere, the red thread that runs through all these works is the question of how revolutionary collective emerge. In short, it is not so much an issue of revealing the contradictions and antagonisms at work within a social field– though this is, no doubt, crucial as well –but rather of determining those conditions under which a collective emerges that is capable of transforming the social sphere. We can do all the ideology critique, all the critical theory, all the social analysis we like, but so long as there are not collective motivated and capable of transforming the social sphere, so long as there aren’t activists and collective desires that traverse the social field, these critiques have little or no impact. We’re left as academics feeling superior to all those dopes that participate (or don’t) in contemporary liberal politics, noting that this form of engagement simply reinforce the current structures of alienation and exploitation, while nonetheless changing nothing. Indeed, in Lacanian terms one wonders if this isn’t precisely the way in which the radical leftist academic doesn’t enjoy his or her symptom. As Freud often observed, the symptom is a source of enjoyment, one of the few that the analysand possesses, such that the analysand often preserves his symptom despite the suffering it causes as a way of continuing to produce jouissance. The jaded academic no doubt knows that a critical theory is going to do little to change the world, but were the world to change the academic would lose the jouissance of doing critical theory and of maintaining a privileged place (in his own mind) within the social order by comparison with all those poor dupes trapped within the fetishes of ideology while believing they are fighting it. A critical theory (I’m using the term in an extremely loose fashion that would include the Frankfurt School but also any form of social and political theory that seeks change), thus aims not at the transformation of the social but at the perpetuation of itself and the profound jouissance of doing critical theory. It is a bit like a game in which the object is to ensure that new moves are always being made, rather than to win. I suspect that an intuition of this sort was at work among those who defended Zizek’s piece on 300.

A shift from questions of critique to questions of the formation of collectives, their morphogenesis, is thus a shift from enjoying ones symptom to traversing the fantasy. It is a movement from simply analyzing the world, as Marx put it, to engaging the world. Sartre characterizes this shift in terms of the transition from “seriality” to “groups-in-fusion”, where seriality can be understood as a sort of anonymity of day-day-existence that characterizes being apart of the social field– not unlike Heidegger’s das Man and being a part of the great anonymous “they” or “us” –to a group that forms its identity through the reciprocity of its participants, distinguishing itself from this anonymous social field, such that the group sets its own goals and projects with regard to the social field. In the terms outlined by Badiou in Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, the group-in-fusion is composed of the subject-of-the-truth-procedure, nominating itself and rising out of its simple interest based existence in day to day life (where interest is broadly construed to denote needs, but also desire in Baudrillard’s sense and Lacan’s sense… As Marx already hints in the very first few paragraphs of Capital).

However, if this shift is to occur, there must be a reflexive moment within thought– whether collective or private thought –where the subject arrives at knowledge of its condition within the world. As Badiou argues in Logiques des mondes, these need not be an instantaneous moment of insight or discovery, but can be a gradual function of the unfolding of an emerging group-in-fusion (somewhat like the way in which Marx describes the gradual “education” of the proletariat earlier in The Communist Manifesto as a function of its struggles). I take it that this is what N.Pepperell is getting at in her discussions of self-reflexivity and pessimistic theory, and what Sartre is alluding to somewhat obliquely in the passage cited above.

In the passage above, Sartre argues that there is a difference between, in the case of our relation to nature, being conditioned by natural laws and having a knowledge that we are conditioned by natural laws. A billiard ball need not have any reflexive awareness of being conditioned by Newtonian laws of mechanics to be conditioned by those laws of mechanics. As Sartre puts it, “it passively suffers these laws.” This poses a question for the materialist (and Sartre is a materialist): As materialists we acknowledge that humans both have a relation to nature and is in nature. How is it that humans come to know the way in which they are conditioned by nature? This is not simply an idle epistemological question, for in knowing that I am conditioned by nature I also have a minimal distance towards nature. That is, knowledge of this conditioning is not, perhaps, a result of that conditioning. Although on this point I remain open.

This question might initially appear unrelated to questions of a social and political nature, yet it applies mutatis mutandis to questions of the social field. A short while back I posed a question along these lines to Antigram with respect to structure, before he so sadly disappeared from the blogosphere. That is, if, as Antigram contends, there are no individuals only structures (and I share his concerns about the individual), how does the theorist that advocates this position have knowledge of himself as an effect of the machinations of structure? Okay, granted the question wasn’t posed that clearly at the time, but I’m retroactively saying that’s what I was trying to ask at the time without knowing it. The theory of social-formations that speaks of social structures, systems, forces, and so on and so forth is not unlike the account of the billiard ball that passively suffers the laws of mechanics. That is, agents are simply seen as props of these structures. Yet as Sartre points out, we must distinguish between the knowledge of being and the being of knowledge (CDR, 24). That is, we risk falling into theoretical pessimism so long as we fail to take self-reflexivity into account, for we come to see ourselves as passive sufferers of these social forces. Yet, to make a Pepperellesque observation, what this proposition forgets is, namely, itself: the subject enunciating the proposition. That is, this proposition forgets that the minimal condition for the possibility of enunciating the proposition that we are effects of structure is a marginal distance from structure, a minimal deterritorialization from structure, a small crack or line of flight within structure. That is, one must have in part already have stepped out of structure in order to discern structure as an operative force of conditioning in the life of the subject. Just as the symptom must come to be seen as split or divided so that the analysand might discern it as a formation of the unconscious (i.e., the analysand must no longer see the symptom as directly the problem to be solved, but rather see the symptom as signifying something other), similarly structure must already be split and fissured to enunciate the claim that we are effects of structure. What the theoretical pessimist forgets is precisely his own position of enunciation: he treats himself as being outside of structure, even as he makes the claim that he is but an effect of structure.

Yet here emerges the question pertaining to the formation of collectives. A collective, as itself a critical entity, as itself a function of the breach in structure, must either punctually or gradually have encountered this breach in structure. Yet what are the conditions, by what confluence of forces, does this breach appear? In many respects this is the ten million dollar question. The elephant in the room that no one is talking about is the old Marxist question of the conditions under which the proletariat will be awoken to its own revolutionary vocation. Of course, social structure has changed significantly and we now know that the proletariat can no longer be identified with industrial workers tout court (this as a function of the shift to post-industrial capital and the emergence of communications technologies that have changed class relations… Indeed, Capital demonstrates that “class” is a far more fluid concept than it is often made out to me). Echoing Sloterdijk’s melancholy question, “why do we continue to do it when we know that we’re doing it?” Where is that crack that might function as the impetus for the emergence of a new people? What would be the conditions under which this crack might emerge. The fact that we’re theorizing it indicates that it is already there, if only virtually or potentially. What would it take for it to become actual? As usual, I have no answers and I’m not even sure that I’m posing the questions in the right way.