Joseph Kugelmass has written an interesting post (and here) criticizing N.Pepperell’s focus on self-reflexivity over at Rough Theory. I would like to offer a few remarks as to how I understand these issues, without, hopefully mutilating N.Pepperell’s own views too much (i.e., my views are creative appropriations and translations into my own theoretical universe). Hopefully I’ll be forgiven the lack of grace with which I develop these themes as I’m really falling over from exhaustion today.

Joseph writes:

The production of knowledge without any specific expectation of change also happens intersubjectively. N. Pepperell takes a strong stand against theories that emphasize intersubjectivity. In a comment to this post, she writes:

I am specifically critical of attempts to centre critical theory on analyses of intersubjectivity – and of the tendency to equate “the social” with “the intersubjective”. Realising that this won’t mean much at this point, my position would be that central dimensions of contemporary society – dimensions that are important for understanding shapes of consciousness, patterns of social reproduction, and potentials for transformations – simply won’t be captured adequately by the attempt to transcend the limitations of theories of the “subject” via theories of the intersubjective constitution of meaning.

If I had to venture a guess, I would guess that NP’s problem with theories of intersubjectivity, that they don’t provide a consistent methodological framework, and don’t take into account the phenomenology (and relevant ideological structures) of our encounters with objects. I can’t be sure because I don’t know exactly what she means by the “central dimensions of contemporary society.”

In the sciences, the scientific method is certainly intersubjective, but also consistent: it is an agreed-upon method for producing uniform and objective results. It is true that scientists do not always peer closely into the motivating forces behind the scientific method, and it is also true that psychological and historical analyses of the scientific method have not altered it. If a scientist were to write not only a description of her method, but also a full account of the historical, cultural, and personal factors condensed in an experiment, the analytic question would still not disappear. It would merely become different: “Why these details? Why this confession?” Anthropologists who live amongst their subjects, rather than surveilling or interviewing them, are not necessarily more knowledgeable anthropologists. They are simply creating a different, and possibly less hostile, “clearing” (Martin Heidegger’s term, from the Greek aletheia) in the name of knowledge.

I cannot speak for N.Pepperell, but if I had to hazard a guess as to what she’s getting at in her concerns about intersubjectivity, it is not their lack of objectivity (she’s worked diligently to critique the role such ahistorical notions play in a good deal of sociology and the social science), nor that these accounts fail to give us a consistent methodology, but rather I would say that talk of intersubjectivity is still talk of a subject to subject relation, and as such fails to get properly at the domain of the social embodied in social structures, forces, history, etc., which can’t properly be uncovered in the phenomenological experience of the subjects involved. It was a similar line of reasoning that led Lacan to systematically abjure any and all talk of “intersubjectivity” following Seminar V. In Seminar V and prior to this, Lacan had often used the term “intersubjectivity” to describe what he was up to with his graphs and so-on. Lacan very quickly found that his students took this to be referring to an ego-to-ego relation or a relation between dual subjects constituting meaning with one another (i.e., a primacy of phenomenological subjects of lived experience and their reciprocal impressions). As a result of this assimilation of intersubjectivity to a relation between two phenomenological subjects, the domain of the social or the symbolic and its autonomous functioning was effectively lost (something like Levi-Strauss’s autonomous functioning of structures). Thus, when Lacan writes the summary of Seminars 4 – 6 in the Ecrits article, “Subversion of the Subject”, all references to “intersubjectivity” disappear so as to emphasize that the Other is not another subject, but the functioning of the signifying chain according to its own immanent principles. This should have been clear already in Seminar V. As Lacan there says at one point, “the subject is cuckold by language”. This should be taken to mean that the subject is enmeshed in a logic of language that exceeds his phenomenological intentions, his direct social experience of other persons, and that functions as a determinant of his relation to self, world, and others. As Lacan will say in Seminar 20, “the universe is the flower of rhetoric”. Certainly this is not something one grasps or discerns in their phenomenological experience.

Read on

N.Pepperell is not, of course, referring to this as she’s not, as far as I can tell, a Lacanian, but there appear to be a similar set of theoretical issues at work here. Something similar can take place in subjectivist interpretations of Marx. Very easily we can fall into the trap of thinking that subjects belonging to the “capitalist” class, are acting according to a set of conscious intentions (the intention to exploit, the intention to maximize profit, etc), and that those belonging to the proletariat class are acting according to a set of conscious intentions as well. What this fails to get at is the way in which the social field comes to be historically structured in a particular way so as to produce a cascade of consequences that have a formative effect on subjects, practices, ways of life, values, etc., within this field.

On the issue of self-reflexivity or immanence, Joseph writes:

In the case of psychoanalytic analyses, there is usually a hidden belief that consciousness is dissociative. In other words, if I come to understand what is causing my behavior, I will lose interest in repeating that behavior, and will assert my freedom and distance from the originating event. This is wrong twice over. First of all, if I become conscious of something, I am perfectly likely to claim it as my own, forever—as Jean Genet did when he said he would become what crime made of him, or as cigarette smokers do when they finally talk openly about being addicted to their smokes. Second, all of us make decisions based on past experiences. If we switch cell phone providers based on past experiences, and choose our leisure activities based on what we know we enjoy, why would we expect someone to change how they act on those same grounds?

Any glance around a social networking site (such as MySpace or Facebook or Friendster) will also confirm that people frequently speak and write about themselves in a seemingly confessional way in order to produce various rhetorical effects. For example, a college student on Facebook will “confess” to being a drunk in order to disarm acquaintances or in order to appear hedonistic. Others will confess to being “crazy” in order to appear spontaneous or unique. A famous example of this tactic is the person who, while interviewing for a job, confesses to being a perfectionist.

What is true of individuals is also true of societies: reflexive thinking is not necessarily emancipatory, and vice versa. Fundamentalists, traditionalists, and conservatives are quite aware of their obduracy, and are proud of it. When Karl Marx wrote that the contradictions within capitalism would eventually destroy it, he wasn’t writing a purely reflexive analysis. He was writing a historical analysis that used the transition from feudalism to capitalism as a model for the transition from capitalism to socialism.

It seems to me that the issue of self-reflexivity or immanence is distinct from the issue of transformative politics. Lacanian psychoanalysis, of course, is a form of self-reflexive clinical practice. This does not mean that the Lacanian has no unconscious or that he’s entirely aware of what he’s doing, but rather that Lacanian analysis differs from other therapeutic approaches (it’s questionable whether the “therapeutic” is the aim of analysis) precisely in that it constantly seeks to attend to the role that the analyst plays in analysis and in the way it interrogates the desire of the analyst. The self-reflexivity of Lacanian analysis does not, of course, entail the transformation of the analyst or the analysand. Rather, the question here is that of the role the analyst plays in the analysand’s desire, and, perhaps more importantly, the role that the analyst’s desire plays in his engagements with the analysand. Without this element of self-reflexivity it is impossible for the analyst to occupy the position of objet a for the analysand, as his own desire will perpetually interfere in the analysis. As Lacan says, the ideal for the analyst– an impossible ideal or a regulative ideal –is for the analyst to play dead. That is to say, the analyst strives, above all, to set aside his own desire so as to enact a properly “analytic desire”. In Seminar 11, Lacan will call this impure desire the desire for absolute difference.

Lacan spent some 27 or more years asking the question “what is the desire of an analyst?” This is a self-reflexive question. Lacan perpetually comes back to the question of how the desire of the analyst enters into the analytic situation in the way the analyst intervenes or exercises the analytic act. Finally, Lacan perpetually theorized the way in which the analyst comes to be attached to the analysand’s symptom in the analysand’s unconscious over the course of analysis in the transference. When Lacan aphoristically intones that “there is no metalanguage”, the whole point is to underline the reflexivity of the analytic setting or the way in which the analyst is not outside what is going on in analysis. In short, other therapeutic approaches often treat the analysand as a separate, self-contained object outside of himself, the “healthy therapist”, and thereby forgets that there is a relation here. Lacan has explored these themes of self-reflexivity more systematically and thoroughly than any other clinical theorist or psychoanalyst, to my knowledge. In these cases where self-reflexivity is ignored, the therapist thinks of himself as the one who has knowledge that can then be imparted to the analysand so that the analysand might be “cured”. It is precisely Lacan’s self-reflexivity that allows the analyst to understand that simply imparting knowledge of the symptom won’t cure the analysand, but rather that the analysand’s truth is a process that the analysand must unfold over the course of analysis if it is to have any effect. As Lacan says in “Function and Field of Speech and Language”, analysis offers the analysand the chance to have a go at it. It is the analyst’s self-reflexivity that governs the unique way in which an analyst comports himself. In this connection, we have a lot to learn from Socrates, who was similarly self-reflexive. Of course Socrates knows that his interlocutors are ignorant, that they do not have the knowledge they believe they possess. However, were he to simply tell them this, the pride borne of their hubris would immediately institute itself and the ears of his interlocutors would close. By adopting the role of ignorant pupil, Socrates is able to conduct himself with regard to his interlocutors in such a way that they are able to discover their own ignorance and truth. All the principles of analysis can be found in the Socratic dialogues (a point not lost on Lacan who devoted an entire year to the Symposium).

Finally, we find Zizek constantly preoccupied with variants of self-reflexivity in his own work. This comes out with special clarity in For They Know Not What They Do and The Sublime Object of Ideology, where Zizek tirelessly shows how positions of enunciation and language perpetually double back on themselves. None of this should come as a surprise given Zizek’s Hegelianism. After all, the quintessential Hegelian gesture is that of a self-reflexive redoubling where a principle is applied to itself or where a deadlock suddenly becomes a solution as in the case of the first dialectic of being and nothing in the Logic or the way in which sense-certainty passes into perception in the Phenomenology.

A similar set of concerns motivate questions of self-reflexivity or immanence in social and political theory. On the one hand, there are issues of a theoretical nature. The historical materialist is committed to the thesis that everything emerges in history. Unlike the Platonist or the crypto-Platonist, there is not, for the historical materialist, a view from nowhere where one can apply ahistorical universals such as justice, truth, the good, or the categorical imperative or some utilitarian accounting tool, etc., so as to evaluate various social configuration. Nor can the historical materialist appeal to an unchanging “human nature” that always has particular structures of emotion, particular needs and desires, particular forms of sacred experience, etc. All of these things are to be seen in their becoming or development. The historical materialist is necessarily obligated to provide an account of how certain sets of values and ways of understanding the world emerge within history, but also how certain forms of life, certain forms of subjectivity, certain types, are generated or individuated. Thus, in an exemplary fashion, Marx and Engels show, in the Manifesto, how a certain set of values surrounding rights, individualism, self-determination, democracy, and so on emerged as a result of economic transformations. They do not simply assert the eternal, ahistorical existence of these values, but unfold these values in their historical genesis. Not only this, but they also show how new entities come into being: the bourgeois and the proletariat. These are not simply variations of an unchanging human nature, but are themselves new natures, incomparable to the serf or the aristocrat or the Greek Master of antiquity. Prior to Foucault, Marx had already declared the “death of man”… The death of man as an ahistorical universal that is the same in all possible [social] universes. Similarly, we have questions as to how the world gradually came to be comprehended in terms that we might call “Galilean”. It is not self-evident that the world should be comprehended in this way. What social and historical set of forces generated this “pre-ontological” comprehension of our understanding of the world. More recently we can ask “why has the new suddenly come to be valorized as a value, perhaps the central value, within the world of theory?” Many of us recall the dark days of postmodernism back in the 90s when we were told that history was over, that there could be no change, that we live within an endless precession of signs, and so on. It appears that the winds have changed. We’ve had a series of thinkers from Badiou to Zizek to Negri and Hardt to Ranciere and countless others who have enunciated strange new words, foreign to our elder academics still living in a historical periodization that seems to quickly be drawing to a close (i.e., a certain time now seems genuinely past). What is it that accounts for the emergence of these new values? From whence do they come?

Initially such questions might seem like a historian’s fetish. “I’m too busy working on theory to ask such trivial historical questions!” However, the cash-value of these sorts of questions is two-fold: One of the problems with the “objectivist” or ahistorical way of understanding value is that it often runs the risk of valorizing values that are part and parcel of the bourgeois ideology (for lack of a better term) out of which they emerge. Adam Kotsko often reminds us of this in his tireless polemics against reigning liberal doxa. A self-reflexive historical materialist analysis can give us some chance of avoiding such deadlocks, just as the self-reflexivity of the analytic setting can help the analyst to avoid the intervention of his own symptom entering into his “treatment” of the analysand. On the other hand, the form of self-reflexive analysis found in historical materialism also allows, I would argue, for a sort of “archeology”… An archeology of the present. Through the analysis of the values and theoretical orientations generated by the material socio-historical field, the theorist also begins to excavate a set of possibilities embodied within our present or historical situation that would otherwise be invisible to our eyes. These potentialities can then become more systematically actualized in our theorization and practice. Self-reflexivity is an attempt to make alternatives, to make potentials, available. Thus, for example, in his recent book on science fiction, Jameson tries to show how science fiction is imagining a set of utopian potentialities.

The point is not one of suddenly trying to live in a futuristic world. Rather, it is an attempt to unfold a set of potentials already there, growing out of our living present, generated by that present, and envisioning alternatives to that present. Science fiction, of course, is “escapist”, or a way in which we flee from the drudgery of this world. For instance, I am currently reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s mars books before bed, dreaming of another world on mars, where all this history could be escaped. What is interesting here is the alternatives, the other potentials, are already here. They are presupposed without being posited. The question of the “critical theorist” is how these new values, these emerging values, these emancipatory potentials that haunt our social field might shift from being “in-themselves” to “for-themselves”. I tried to do something similar, without realizing it, in my essay on apocalyptic images. The point is that these potentialities haunting our situation tend to veil or clothe themselves behind dominant ideology without this sort of self-reflexive archeology. The excavation of potentialities, of course, does not imply that potentials will become actual. But it does, at least, increase that possibility by rendering them available and explicit. Similarly, none of this implies that the self-reflexive theorist is without an unconscious. Just as philosophy is not a product of a philosopher but rather a philosopher is a product of the grueling adventure of her philosophical praxis, so too is the self-reflexive theorist constantly struggling with her own social and political unconscious, transforming herself in fits and starts as a result of her practice of excavating antagonisms, potentialities, a social field both more personal than the personal and beyond any phenomenological lived experience, etc.

On the other hand, the question of self-reflexivity has a central methodological significance. Many of us familiar with Habermas will recall his criticism of Foucault in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Foucault, it was said, was guilty of a performative contradiction. If all formations of knowledge are the historical productions of epistemes, if all formations of knowledge are products of fiberous networks of micro-power, how is it that Foucault’s knowledge escapes these networks of power? In short, Foucault seems to speak as if from a position outside the formations of history and power while simultaneously claiming that there is no view from nowhere. More recently– although I haven’t read him myself –it appears that the theologian Milbank has attempted to discredit socio-anthropological accounts of religion using postmodern arguments, showing (if I understand him correctly), how these very arguments must be applied to sociologists themselves thereby establishing the groundlessness of these claims or that they are no better grounded than religion (for a fascinating a very clear discussion of this, cf David Driedger’s “Sociology, Theology, and the Priesthood of All Readers” here. warning pdf). Postmodernism then becomes an apology for religion, which is a point aptly seen in the recent theological turn among thinkers like Derrida, Henry, an a host of others.

Habermas, Milbank, and the others who make this sort of argument are correct. To say these theorists are correct is not to endorse their conclusions. The alternative should not be the alternative they provide between ahistorical universals or corrosive nihilism– as N.Pepperell likes to put it –but rather the issue should instead be one of demonstrating how values, forms of knowledge, and critique can be generated out of an immanent field (in fidelity to the philosophical decision for immanence inaugurated by Thales). Rather than submitting to this alternative, the point is to concede that the historical materialist that posits immanence is necessarily obligated to give an account of their own position of enunciation. The very principles that a social theory mobilizes in its critique of the material socio-historical present must themselves be reflexively applied to the theory itself, demonstrating the manner in which this form of critique is possible, or how it emerges within this particular configuration of forces at this particular point in history. This is intimately related to the question of how critique is possible– “what are the conditions for the possibility of critique” –will vary from historical period to historical period (due to the emergence of new values, subjectivities, and knowledges), and is perhaps an interminable task that must perpetually be renewed. The point here is that the critical theorist is not himself outside of what he analyzes, but is also enmeshed within this field such that the possibility of his own claims must be evaluated and such that the responsiveness of the social field to claims about the social field (knowledge of the social also changes the social vis a vis the way the social reacts to it… And this does not always occur in in positive or emancipatory ways, as can be seen in the history of the reception of Marxism in the United States outside the academy). As should be obvious, the self-reflexivity here discussed isn’t that of the cogito as found in the philosophies of reflection from Descartes to Fichte, and then in phenomenology. In such instances, the cogito is viewed abstractly, outside of the social field in which it is actualized (which isn’t to say it doesn’t posses its own partial truth). As Lacan liked to put it, the unconscious changes in response to interpretations of the unconscious such that it is always closing as it opens (Ecrits, “Position of the Unconscious”). Rather, self-reflexivity is a characteristic of the social field itself. One could do worse than begin with Bourdieu’s Pascalian Meditations on these issues, but he is far from being the only place to begin.