From an object-oriented point of view, one of the most valuable concepts in Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason is that of antipraxis. As Joseph Catalano describes it in his Commentary on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason,

One of the distinctive aspects of praxis is that it acts in the face of an authorless counterpraxis. Thus, Sartre here examines: (1) how matter becomes totalized by receiving human finalities; (2) how totalized matter then has finalities of its own; (3) how one aspect of the distinctiveness of our history is that these new finalities are counterfinalities, that is, they act against our original intentions; and (4) how certain powerless groups suffer from these counter-finalities and how others use them for their own finalities. (121)

One of the central questions of Sartre’s Critique is that of how societies emerge as entities in their own right from and through individuals. That is, why is it that collectives of people (to be distinguished from groups) take on the specific form and organization they take on at a particular point in history. From an object-oriented perspective, this would be the question of how larger scale objects emerge from smaller scale objects. Part of Sartre’s answer to this question resides in the concept of antipraxis.

Put simply, antipraxis refers to results of our praxis, products of the manner in which we have worked over matter, that then take on a life of their own escaping our own intentions and aims. Latour will make a similar point later on in his “sociology of associations” developed in Reassembling the Social. There Latour will point out that it is not signs and intentions alone that account for the fabric of society, but rather that people are held together in particular ways through nonhuman objects that come to structure our action, field of choices, aims, intentions, and so on. This thesis is developed with particular clarity in Pandora’s Hope in the article entitled A Collective of Humans and Nonhumans. Like the trail left behind by a snail, antipraxis is a residue of praxis that comes to transform the nature of praxis, introducing new aims that were not our original aims.

read on!

Sartre gives three examples to illustrate the concept of antipraxis: Chinese peasants cultivating the land, the relationship of 16th century Spain to gold, and 18th and 19th century coal and iron mining. Sartre’s example of Chinese cultivation of the land is particularly nice because it opens the way for thinking Marxism and ecology together. In the case of Chinese peasants cultivating the land, trees were cleared for the sake of agriculture. However, with the clearing of the trees, annual flooding increased, creating a whole new set of problems for the Chinese peasants. In this example, the praxis of the Chinese peasants was directed by the goal of farming to sustain themselves and others. Their goal was not to create more flooding. Nonetheless, increased flooding resulted from this praxis.

Now what is interesting here is not that there are unintended consequences to our praxis, but rather the way in which these unintended consequences come to modify our praxis. As a consequence of increased flooding, for example, the Chinese peasants have to engage in all sorts of activities to diminish the effects of this flooding (building houses on stilts, building damns, barriers, etc). Moreover, these activities require the peasants to organize in a particular way, creating a new set of social relations that didn’t exist before. The point here is that this intention, to organize in this way, came not from the peasants, but from the antipraxis that resulted from their work.

Examples can be multiplied. Washer machines and dryers, for example, were created to be labor saving devices when doing laundry. No longer do we need to use a board and bucket to wash your clothing. Now, depending on your degree of wealth and sort of work, it is likely that in the period of “board and bucket” washing, laundry was done rather infrequently. However, with the emergence of the washing machine and the increased use and ownership of washing machines, doing laundry frequently becomes not an exotic luxury, but a social necessity. In order to function well in our society, it is necessary to regularly do your laundry. If you walk about in obviously dirty clothes– and are not a construction worker or artist –you will be shunned by others.

A whole cascade of consequences ensue as a result of a shift such as this. The person must now find the means to do their laundry. Either they must purchase a washer and dryer for their home so they can do laundry, or they must have some form of transportation so that they can go to a laundry mat to do their laundry (if you’re in Chicago, a cart that you pull, or a car, etc). Additionally, you now need to have electricity, a source of water, soap, fabric softeners, and so on. What began as a labor saving device thus 1) calls for all sorts of other entities that we did not initially desire, and, more importantly, 2) issues new forms of social relations. These new forms of social relations arise in two ways: a) the new social demands (clean clothing) that come to accompany the technology, but also b) all the labor relations that emerge as a result of having to have things such as electricity, running water, soap, washer machines and dryers, carts and cars, etc.

Often this sort of antipraxis is invisible until you run up against the wall of not being able to fulfill it. When, as a teenager, I was kicked out of my home for a time, I encountered the despair of the washer machine acutely. In order to support myself, I needed the money I earned from my job at the fast food restaurant where I worked. As a cook I got very dirty. To do my job, I needed a clean uniform. Yet to have a clean uniform I needed my money from my job and a means of transportation for going to the laundry mat to clean my uniform. But I also needed money made from my job to pay rent, pay for food, etc. And I couldn’t do my job unless I was able to sleep (ergo the need for an apartment) and eat. In this period of homelessness, I encountered a field of antipraxis that structured my entire life and all of my activities.

A simple thing like a washer machine thus generates an entire ecology or regime of attraction. The projects or goals that antipraxis engenders are not projects or goals that we set for ourselves. No, they are, in a manner somewhat similar to Heideggarian “thrownness”, goals that are posited for us. Moreover, the entities belonging to the world of antipraxis do not exist in isolation, but form a network of relations, a regime of attraction, interdependencies not unlike a spider web: washer machine-electricity-water-soap-transportation-etc. Finally, this web or regime of attraction is an evolving network. One technology calls for others in a manner analogous to the way in which ecosystems produce ecological niches that seem to call for the emergence of new species. The invention of the internet, for example, calls for fiber optic cables, wi-fii availability, 3G coverage, etc. We did not originally intend these things, but the things themselves seem to call for them, creating a complex web beyond our control that scurries to fill these niches.