In my last post I mentioned that Joe Hughes, Jeff Bell and I are drawing up plans for a book on social and political philosophy and ontology. It seems to me that Sartre poses the nature of the question we’ll try to address. In the Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre remarks that “…man [sic.] is mediated by things to the same extent as things are ‘mediated’ by man [sic.]” (79). In this regard, Sartre repeats, in his own way, Marx’s famous thesis that “men [sic.] make history, but not in conditions of their own making.” Sartre provides a gorgeous example of how things mediate humans to the same degree that humans mediate things later in the Critique of Dialectical Reason. Is Sartre remarks,

In his excellent book, Mumford says: ‘Since the steam engine requires constant care on the part of the stoker and engineer, steam power was more efficient in large units than in small ones… Thus steam power fostered the tendency toward large industrial plants…” I do not wish to question the soundness of these observations, but simply to note the strange language– language which has been ours since Marx and which we have no difficulty in understanding –in which a single proposition links finality to necessity so indissolubly that it is impossible to tell any longer whether it is man or machine which is a practical project. (159 – 160)

Is it humans that define the telos of producing large industrial plants, or is it the specific properties of steam engines that generate the aim of producing large industrial plants? In a manner that will later be repeated by Stiegler in Time and Tecnics, Sartre will suggest that the technological realm takes on a teleology of its own.

In this connection, Sartre will set up a dialectic between praxis and antipraxis. Antipraxis refers to the inertia of the nonhuman realm and the manner in which it comes to structure human relationships and possibilities. One of Sartre’s questions, according to Joseph Catalano in A Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume 1: Theory of Practical Ensembles is the question of “…’the condition for the possibility’ of human relations” (22). Because Sartre advocates a metaphysical nominalism in which only individuals exist, he’s obligated to account for how social relations emerge. Among Sartre’s answers is the concept of antipraxis.

How is this to be understood? Through human praxis we create artifacts or products that come to condition subsequent human activity. Take the example of agriculture. Within a hunter-gatherer framework, it is likely that the growing of plants and the raising of livestock was not an aim in itself, but was a causal activity that supplemented what could be hunted and gathered. However, with time the products of agriculture (tilled land and domesticated animals) comes to take on a life of its own. Humans now find themselves existing in a field of inherited products of agriculture, new social relations begin to emerge. For example, people now begin to get tied to particular locations, rather than wandering all over the place, women no longer enjoy the egalitarian position they often enjoyed in agricultural society, paternity becomes important in determining labor and inheritance, time comes to be structured in a different way around the harvest and the rationing of grains over the year, and some form of military becomes necessary to defend against invasion and pillage. This is what Sartre refers to as the “practico-inert”, which consists of the products of human praxis that have now taken on a life of their own, structuring human relations in a particular way.

Those that engaged in agriculture did not intend these new social relations, but rather found themselves in a field– what I call a “regime of attraction” –that produced these new forms of relations. The situation is very much similar to a particular moment on a chess board. Occasionally one of your pieces end up in a position with respect to the other pieces where a particular moves is more or less necessitated by the positions of the other pieces. In Heideggerian terms, we find ourselves thrown into a world that is not of our own making and that structures our movements, ways of relating, even our very subjectivity and ways of feeling in a variety of different ways. Sartre raises questions, for example, as to whether we can univocally say that “primitive man” is anything like modern industrial humans, or whether they even belong to the same species or type. In this regard, he repeats the claims of Marx and Engels in the Manifesto.

The question that Sartre raises so admirably is that of how praxis is possible in a world where humans are mediated by things as much as things are mediated by humans. Put in terms of political thought, how are self-directing collectives or groups possible? Here I think that we should abandon the term subject within social and political theory and follow Deleuze and Guattari’s or Sartre’s advice of talking in terms of collectives or “subject-groups” because “subject” implies an individual or person, whereas the question of politics is always a question of collectives. Contemporary social and political theory is characterized by an opposition between what might be called, on the one hand, Spinozists, and on the other hand, Kantians. On the Spinozist side we have thinkers like Foucault, perhaps Deleuze and Guattari, Althusser, McLuhan, certain variants of Marx, and so on that emphasize the determination of collectives by impersonal forces that exceed the intentions of agents. On the Kantian side we have theorists such as Badiou, Ranciere, and Zizek that defend a sort of volunterism that subtracts itself from any sort of contextual determination.

The Kantians correctly pose the question by asking how self-directing praxis of collectives are possible, but too often end up completely underdetermining context or situations, showing little or no interest in their organization and how they overdetermine action in a variety of ways. As a result, they’re too often left with any nuanced or well developed analysis of what needs to be addressed in situations. Their position remains abstract. The Spinozists correctly pose the question by emphasizing how regimes of attraction structure our possibilities of action and engagement, transforming us into puppets beyond our control, but too often leave unaddressed the question of how any sort of agency or self-direction is possible within a field where we are products of these fields. I am not suggesting that Sartre has the answer, but that he has properly posed the question by asking how self-directing collectives can emerge within a field of antipraxis governed by its own intentionality. This is the squaring of the circle that needs to be worked out: one that is capable of doing justice to the structuration of the contextual or regimes of attraction, while theorizing the emergence of subject-groups capable of acting on situations rather than simply being puppets of forces beyond their intentions. How can we simultaneously think humans making history but not in conditions of their own making?