Abstraction


Take the example of Deleuze and Guattari. Anti-Oedipus is not so much a critique of psychoanalysis– though it is that as well –as it is a critique of a particular social structure and the metaphysics that accompanies it. If an engagement with psychoanalysis proves to be the privileged site for an engagement with this structure, then this is not with the aim of reforming psychoanalysis– though that as well –but because psychoanalysis provides those weapons necessary for engaging this structure and developing a praxis that would allow for an escape from this structure. Politics, we might say, was at an impasse. The Russian Revolution was a failure. It had overturned those that controlled the means of production, yet the form of social organization remained the same. The content had changed, while the form remained in place. Just as I might replace a missing piece on a chess board with quarter, the material content had changed while essentially the same function or structure was in place. “Meet your new boss, same as the old boss.” The party elite now occupied the place of exploiter, producing a machine more harrowing than the factories in its capacity and reality of alienation, and while the owners of the means of production had changed, having been socialized or democratized, the form of production– Taylorism –remained the same. The French Communist Party was not much better. Here, once again, we had the same hierarchical structure, with a party elite calling the shots, making the decisions, organized around a centralized apparatus that radiated outwards, rather than the socialization or democratization that Marx had called for.

But this, in and of itself, was not the problem. Or rather, it was a problem, but the problem also lay elsewhere. All over the place economic changes were taking place. Conditions were changing. Yet revolution did not come. Why? The vulgar and simplistic model of Marxist thought, that superstructure is a function and distorted reflection of the base, had to be mistaken. At some level, as Deleuze and Guattari, following Reich, put it, people must desire their own oppression. It is not enough to say that these structures were simply imposed on agents from without. Rather, at some level agents must desire these formations… These formations which Deleuze and Guattari refer to as “fascist”. Consequently, a critique of political economy is not enough. In addition to a critique of political economy, a critique of desire, a Critique of Pure Desire, must be written. Psychoanalysis provided these tools. Just as Marx carried out a critique of Ricardo, among others, by showing how value was not an intrinsic feature of things in themselves, but produced through labor. Freud and Lacan carried out a critique of prior psychology by formulating a desire divested of objects, a desire as such, a desire that wasn’t a function of need and instinct… A desire without an object, but as a process. Marx produced a non-representational theory of value. Freud and Lacan produced a non-representational theory of desire. Yet this critique had not gone far enough. It was still tainted by the empirical.

This desire was still tainted by certain privileged objects. Just as Kant had carried out a critique of the so-called proofs for the existence of God in the second half of the Critique of Pure Reason, it was thus necessary to carry out a Critique of Oedipal Reason. The Oedipus had been subtracted from the social sphere, treated as a private affair of the family, dehistoricized, de-sociologized, de-culturalized. But rather, the Oedipus reflected an entire metaphysics, a metaphysics extending far beyond the private. Far from being a natural and essential state-of-affairs, it already was the expression of a political metaphysics. This can be thought in fractal terms. A fractal is a pattern that iterates or repeats itself at all levels of scale.

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Far from the family being the ground upon which all other social relations are based, what we have here is a fractal structure iterating itself at the level of the family, the level of social organizations (king or leader to subjects), and at the level of God in relation to his creature. If the death of God means anything, it means the destruction of this structure… Not simply at the level of content, but at the level of form as well. Freud, as Marx to Ricardo, had glimpsed this in his earlier work where libido no longer has an object. Lacan had explicitly formulated this in his claim that “the Oedipus is Freud’s myth“, and his attempt to think beyond the name-of-the-father as a central organizing principle in his later work. The problem arises as to how a politics might be possible in a post-Oedipal or post-onto-theological world.

More to come.

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N.Pepperell of Rough Theory has been kind enough to plug my recent post “Social Assemblages and Agency“. A while back I wrote a rather whimsical post entitled “Of Cooking, Mixtures, and Milieus“. While the post might have been whimsical in tone– drawing on anecdotes from cooking and examples from Seinfeld –the point I was trying to make was a serious one about the nature of causality in relation to social formation. That is, there seems to be a tendency to adopt top-down models of causality when thinking about social phenomena, such that we are led to think one cause hegemonically dominating the social space. Whether we posit signifiers as determining social relations, the sovereign as determining social relations (a recent turn I find particularly irritating as, following Spinoza and Hegel, there is no such thing as a sovereign that doesn’t draw his power from the consent of the multitudes), language, structure, or more recently the biological, we posit a unilateral causality where one term serves as the explanation for the rest. This, of course, is the essence of metaphysics: to treat a part of the whole as explaining the whole.

Casting about for metaphors to interrupt this pattern of thought, I seized on cooking and chemistry:

If cooking is instructive for the social theorist, then this is because cooking teaches us to think in terms of mixtures, processes, intensive transformations, intensities, and irreversible processes. Tomato, garlic, cumin, and olive oil are not the same after they are mixed and heated. Rather, a qualitative transformation takes place… A transformation that is irreversible. Cooking is chemistry, rather than physics. Where, in classical physics we are enjoined to think atoms impacting one another in relations of force such that the atoms nonetheless retains its identity, changing only in velocity, chemistry leads us to think mixtures, temperatures, pressures, etc., that lead to qualitative transformations of the elements involved. The garlic is not the same after it is cooked and mixed. Nor can I return the garlic to its previous uncooked state. Rather, it has undergoing a qualitative transformation that now has different potentialities. For instance, if I roast garlic in tinfoil and olive oil in the oven, I can now spread it on a nice loaf of sour dough bread like butter, whereas before this would not have been possible. Under these conditions, the flavor becomes sweet, where before it was pungent.

Cooking, chemistry, requires us to think a milieu of individuation where a milieu of individuation is to be understood as the relation something entertains to other things in the world such that it would not be that thing without these other things. If you enjoy wine then you know that where the wine comes from and the year the wine was made make a tremendous difference as to what the wine is. Wine, wine grapes, always emerge in a milieu of individuation defined by the weather, the soil conditions, other plants, animals, and insects in the region and so on. Wine from one and the same vinyard can be radically different from one year to the next. The same is the case with cheese. Each individual entity is itself attached to a world, a local morphogenetic field, through which it produces itself as an ongoing process by interacting with that world.

In cooking or chemistry there is no one thing that causes the rest. Rather, we instead have to think relations of feedback and interaction where all the elements or ingredients interact. This entails that there will not be a “one size fits all” sort of explanation for social phenomena. Rather, following Freud, we might instead talk of “overdetermination”. Of course, this approach to thinking the social and political will cause some to recoil as the complexity of our object is vastly complicated. Social and political philosophers strike me as liking simple answers and schematizations of their objects (I think actual social scientists often fare much better and are much less reductive). On the other hand, an approach that emphasizes interaction at multiple levels, multiple levels of non-linear causation, and complexity might also undermine some of the pessimism (that sometimes seems almost celebratory in tone) that sometimes seems to haunt social and political philosophy (the all or nothing attitude that asks empty questions like “how do we overcome capitalism” and then finds itself impotent when it comes to doing anything at all). That is, such a view might allow us to diagnose false problems that result from overly schematic and simplified conceptions of the social. At any rate, N.Pepperell has recently written a couple of very nice posts on Diane Elson’s work, who appears to be thinking in a similar groove (here and here). Well worth the read!

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Even in its best moments, philosophy perpetually abstracts the philosopher from the world the philosopher describes. The philosopher surveys the whole as a view from nowhere, as an impassive and independent look, without itself being implicated in that upon which it gazes. When discussing contradiction or antagonisms, for instance, these antagonisms are set side by side and investigated by the philosophical subject, as if the philosophical subject were a neutral onlooker that is itself outside or independent of these antagonisms. Yet if, as Deleuze argues in the 16th chapter of The Logic of Sense, “…the individual is inseparable from a world” (109), determined by a distribution of pre-individual singularities, how could such a gaze fail to be a point of view. However, here I must take care in how I express myself, for as Deleuze remarks in The Fold, “To the degree that it [a site or point of inflection] represents variation or inflection, it can be called point of view. Such is the basis of perspectivism, which does not mean a dependence in respect to a pregiven or defined subject; to the contrary, a subject will be what comes to the point of view or rather what remains in the point of view” (19). Just as Einstein observed with the constancy of light, it is not subjects that individuate points of view, but rather points of view that individuate subjects.

There are brief moments where philosophy approaches a form, a writing, that would be equal to this content. Perhaps Nietzsche’s use of the aphorism as a method expresses such a form. As Deleuze argues in Nietzsche & Philosophy,

Understood formally, an aphorism is present as a fragment; it is the form of a pluralist thought; in its content it claims to articulate and formulate a sense. The sense of a being, an action, a thing– these are the objects of the aphorism… Only the aphorism is capable of articulating sense, the aphorism is interpretation and the art of interpreting. In the way the poem is evaluation and the art of evaluating, it articulates values. But because values and sense are such complex notions, the poem itself must be evaluated, and the aphorism interpreted. (31)

We look in vain for a unifying philosophy behind the aphorisms; but if this is the case then it is because the aphorisms are mandibles that grasp, articulate, or render a fragment of a world. The aphorisms are heterogeneous universes of value or interpretations. Or better yet, they are ways of being in a world that no longer exists as an irreducible unity within which a plurality of agents exist. It is in this sense that the aphorisms form a properly pluralistic thought, where we no longer have a world as such, but rather fragments or competing points of view in which agents are individuated and where a clamor of voices, filled with antagonisms, fill our ears… Our ears which are also among and within these fragments. Perhaps we also find a similar writing in Blanchot’s Writing of Disaster, or Adorno’s Minima Moralia and Prisms. These are moments in the history of philosophy where form strives to be adequate to the content, and the form of the sovereign subject is itself shattered, such that it can only enter into the work as one voice among others.

Describing the literature of Roger Vailland, Lefebvre writes,

In this book [325,000 francs], as in Vailland’s earlier novels, the author appears as such. He says: “I”. He intervenes as a witness, designating the characters and situating them, entering into dialogue with them, inviting the reader to decide what attitude to adopt towards them: what judgment to make. Here judgment is inseparable from event; it is rigorously included in the story. This authorial presence has various meanings, and not simply on the level of technique. It is Roger Vailland’s way– and a very simple way it is –of resolving a difficult literary problem, that of novelistic consciousness or of consciousness in the novel. Who is speaking? Who is seeing, who saw the actions in the story? Who bridges the gap between the lived in the true. How has the speaker seen or heard about the things he narrates? How has he been able to foretell or sense what will happen next? Who has detected the character’ motives (hidden even to themselves)? And as he is drawn on by the great movement called ‘reading’, with whom does the reader identify, in whose consciousness does he participate? (Critique of Everyday Life, Volume I, 26)

In Vailland’s literature the author is no longer a sovereign onlooker outside the events narrated, but is there amongst the events as a point of view. Nor are we confronted simply with a first person point of view or a stream of consciousness, but rather a heterogeneity of points of view. In this way, the reader is implicated or participates in the novel as yet another point of view in a manner similar to how Brecht strives to implicate the audience in the spectacle. Antagonisms are thereby able to reveal themselves as antagonisms, blind spots as blind spots as blind spots, points of hesitation and indecision as points of indecision. The author is no longer transcendent to the novel, but immanent to the novel, and the reader is no longer a voyeur… Or rather, perhaps the reader becomes aware precisely of his voyeurism by being implicated in the events.

Would it be possible to write philosophically in a way adequate to this form? Would it be possible to write philosophically in a way that no longer posits a meta-theory in this way? Plato sometimes seems to be a joker of this sort.

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Throughout its history, philosophy seems particularly prone to three interrelated errors– or perhaps they would be better referred to as “transcendental illusions”? –that it shares with doxa or common sense and that plague thought.

First, in approaching the explanation of phenomena in the world, philosophy perpetually has recourse to the primacy of the Concept, the Form, or Essence, to the detriment of the individual or actually existing entity. Perhaps the most famous example of this primacy is to found in the opening sections of Hegel’s Phenomenology, entitled “Sense-Certainty”. There Hegel begins with the epistemological thesis that all knowledge originates in the immediacy of sense-certainty or the sensible given. Taking this thesis at its word, Hegel goes on to show how our attempt to say the sensible immediate or given always fails insofar as language is only composed of general terms that are unable to grasp the individual given presented within the sensible field. I say that the individual given is this given, here, at this time, yet these same terms can apply indifferently to any number of other objects, such that I am only apply to express the universal, never the individual. The outcome of this contradiction or deadlock within sense-certainty is that Spirit comes to recognize that the individual given was never the object of knowledge, that it is always-already mediated by the universal, and that these universals are the true object of knowledge.

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From Marx’s draft of a A Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right:

The ‘state formalism’ which bureaucracy is, is the ‘state as formalism’; and it is as a formalism of this kind that Hegel has described as bureaucracy. Since this ‘state formalism’ constitutes itself as an actual power and itself becomes its own material content, it goes without saying that the ‘bureaucracy’ is a web of practical illusions, or the ‘illusion of the state.’ The bureaucratic spirit is a jesuitical, theological spirit through and through. The bureaucrats are the jesuits and theologians of the state…

Since by its very nature the bureaucracy is the ‘state as formalism’, it is this also as regards its purpose. The actual purpose of the state therefore appears to bureaucracy as an objective hostile to the state. The spirit of the bureaucracy is the ‘formal state spirit.’ The bureaucracy therefore turns the ‘formal state spirit’ or the actual spiritlessness of the state into a categorical imperative. The bureaucracy takes itself to be the ultimate purpose of the state. Because the bureaucracy turns its “formal” objectives into its content, it comes into conflict everywhere with ‘real’ objectives. It is therefore obliged to pass off the form for the content and the content for the form… The bureaucracy is a circle from which no one can escape. Its hierarchy is a hierarchy of knowledge. The top entrusts the understanding of detail to the lower levels, whilst the lower levels credit the top with understanding of the general, and so all are mutually deceived.

The bureaucracy is the imaginary state alongside the real state– the spiritualism of the state. Each thing has therefore a double meaning, a real and bureaucratic meaning, just as knowledge (and also the will) is both real and bureaucratic… The bureaucracy has the state, the spiritual essence of society, in its possession, as its private property. The general spirit of the bureaucracy is the secret, the mystery, preserved within itself by the hierarchy and against the outside world by being a closed corporation. Avowed political spirit, as also political-mindedness, therefore appear to the bureaucracy as treason against its mystery. Hence, authority is the basis of its knowledge, and the deification of authority is its conviction. Within the bureaucracy itself, however, spiritualism becomes crass materialism, the materialism of passive obedience, of faith in authority, of the mechanism of fixed and formalistic behaviour, and of fixed principles, views, and traditions.

Kafka can be read as a cartogropher of these jesuitical or theological illusions. A couple more passages:

The fact is that the state issues from the multitude in their existence as members of families and as members of civil society. Speculative philosophy [Hegel’s system] expresses this fact as the idea’s deed, not as the idea of the multitude, but as the deed of a subjective idea different from the fact itself

Marx argues that the State is constituted from the multitudes, not the multitude from the State. Here there are strong resonances with Deleuze’s theory of individuation and Badiou’s ontology of multiplicities. Deleuze’s theory of individuation pertains to the process by which individuals are individuated or produced, not what allows us to distinguish one substantial individual from another. Like Badiou, identity, for Deleuze, is always a product come second, an effect, a product, a result. Identities must be constituted. Similarly, for Badiou, the Same is only ever constituted through the operation of the count-as-one. As such, these two accounts of entity provide fertile ground for an ontology of historical materialism, as historical materialism rejects any idealistic thesis of ahistorical essences– viz., an essential human nature, for instance –underlying being. We also encounter one of the major problems with Luhmann’s social systems theory here. Insofar as Luhmann places individuals outside social systems, he reproduces the optical illusion whereby the State is an entity in its own right over and above those that constitute the state. More on this in a moment. Marx makes a similar point regarding individuation a moment later in his Contribution, when he writes:

If Hegel had set out from real subjects as the bases of the state he would not have found it necessary to transform the state in a mystical fashion into a subject. “In truth, however,” says Hegel, “subjectivity exists only as subject, personality only as person.” This too is a piece of mystification. Subjectivity is a characteristic of the subject, personality a characteristic of the person. Instead of conceiving them as predicates of their subjects, Hegel gives the predicates an independent existence and subsequently transforms them in a mystical fashion into their subjects.

In short, Hegel fails to attend to the manner in which individuals are individuated or produced; or as Marx will much later put it in the Preface to his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness… Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production. No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.

The network of production, exchange, distribution, and consumption will each produce its own specific social organizations and forms of subjectivity. For instance, production is not just the production of goods, but also requires the production of subjectivities. For instance, there is a qualitative difference between a Greek or Roman slave, a Serf, and an Industrial Laborer, such that all these forms of subjectivity must be produced or individuated. To discern this it will be necessary to analyze the network within which these forms of embodiment and affect emerge. In Grundrisse, Marx will go so far as to say that production is immediately consumption and consumption is immediately production. In this connection, he is speaking of the manner in which the body and tools are consumed in producing. However, he also alludes to how forms of art must produce their audience so that they might be “consumed”. Here, already, Marx anticipates Baudrillard’s critique in For a Critique of the Political Economy of Signs.

Returning to Contributions to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx goes on to remark that,

Democracy is the truth of monarchy; monarchy is not the truth of democracy. Monarchy is necessarily democracy inconsistent with itself; the monarchial element is not an inconsistency in the democracy. Monarchy cannot be understood in its own terms; democracy can. In democracy none of the elements attains a significance other than what is proper to it. Each is in actual fact only an element of the whole demos [people]. In monarchy one part determines the character of the whole. The entire constitution has to adapt itself to this fixed point. Democracy is the genus Constitution. Monarchy is one species, and a poor one at that. Democracy is content and form. Monarchy is supposed to be only a form, but it falsifies the content.

In monarchy the whole, the people, is subsumed under one of its particular modes of being, the political constitution. In democracy the constitution itself appears only as one determination, that is, the self-determination of the people. In monarchy we have the people of the constitution; in democracy the constitution of the people. Democracy is the solved riddle of all constitutions. Here, not merely implicitly and in essence but existing in reality, the constitution is constantly brought back to its actual basis, the actual human being, the actual people, and established as the peoples own work. The constitution appreas as what it is, a free product of man.

In this passage Marx plays brilliantly on the two senses of the signifier “constitution”. On the one hand, constitution, of course, refers to a political document. Yet on the other hand, “constitution” is a verb signifying “to constitute”, “make”, or “produce”. In constitution we make, set up, or establish a structure. Marx is here drawing on Feuerbach’s critique of religion and applying it to Hegel’s political philosophy. If democracy is the “truth” of monarchy, then this is because that which is veiled in monarchy becomes clear in democracy. Monarchy is premised on an optical illusion in which the monarch rules by virtue of power that flows directly from his being. However, the monarch only has power as a monarch insofar as he is recognized as a monarch. It is the multitudes– in this case multitudes that have been counted or individuated as subjects –that recognize the monarch as a monarch. Yet these subjects experience themselves as subjected and do not recognize that the power of the monarch issues from them. By contrast, in democracy, this optical effect disappears and the multitudes constitute themselves through themselves or their own action.

I realize all of these thoughts are very scattered and disjointed, but I thought I would throw them up here anyway. It seems to me that Marx’s remarks here are an important reminder of the aims of any sort of revolutionary practice. Increasingly, in works of political theory and about the blogosphere, we have heard heroic flirtations with strong State forms as necessary for political intervention. This comes especially from the Zizek camp. We have also heard dismissals of certain forms of politics surrounding feminisms, queer movements, various minority movements, etc., as if the principles of historical materialism have been entirely forgotten, i.e., that while we should engage in ruthless critique we must nonetheless ask why these political forms are emerging in precisely these circumstances and what truly revolutionary potentials they might contain. The Marx of Contributions to a Critique of Hegel, of course, is the humanist Marx, well preceding the Marx of Grundrisse and Capital. Nonetheless, it seems to me that this conception of multitudes, of the demos, remains. The question is how it might be thought. I would cautiously suggest that we have never seen democracy.

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This week we began Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura in my intro philosophy courses. I am extremely excited to teach this text. Not only is it beautifully written, but Lucretius’ brilliance glows on every page in both the ethical concerns that animate the text and his precise and careful observations of various natural phenomena to support his arguments. In my view, a good philosophical thesis problematizes the world and creates research projects. Where before certain things seemed to be obvious features of the world, these hitherto familiar things now become bathed in the light of problems, demanding explanation in terms of the overarching thesis. Thus, for example, Lucretius’ atomism now turns the growth of a tree or water oozing from cave walls into problems or questions to be explained in terms of atoms. Stunning philosophical claims suddenly burst forth like lightening, such as the the claim that “all things are porous”.

Increasingly it looks like Lucretius was mistaken in his conception of atoms as the smallest units of indestructable matter– quantum mechanics seems to suggest that there are no smallest units of matter, only various rhythms and intensities of energy defined more as relations or fields that perpetually reconstitute themselves as dynamic processes in relation to other point-fields, than individual points –but nonetheless Lucretius’ thesis remains one that bathed the world in clarity, making possible questions and explanations that were not otherwise possible. This, too, is a virtue of a good thesis: It becomes lively towards its own material, such that the conditions are created where it can encounter the limits of what it is able to explain, allowing new theses to emerge. When thought is a patchwork quilt with no convictions, such liveliness does not occur as the most heterogeneous elements sit side by side in the patchwork making no claim on the matter.

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I am thoroughly exhausted and should be falling into bed, yet somehow I won’t let myself rest. There are times, especially when fatigued or sick that I’ll will myself to stay awake as if I resent the implication or thought that life is being robbed from me. I stubbornly go on, as if in defiance of my physical limits. Or again, perhaps this stubbornness arises from knowing that next week I’ll be returning to classes and will be exceedingly busy.

In preparation for the After Music conference at University of Newcastle, I’ve been rereading A Thousand Plateaus, with fresh and excited eyes. The “Geology of Morals” plateau, while obscure in parts, is especially good… Or perhaps I only think this because it deals heavily with questions of individuation or morphogenesis, which seem to be my obsession. Deleuze and Guattari mobilize Hjelmslev’s linguistics, rereading it in a highly original fashion, to develop a metaphysics of matter undergoing morphogenesis. It seems to me that this particular schematization nicely thematizes a number of points N.Pepperrell has made about abstraction and her critiques of demystifying approaches and ideology critiques.

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N.Pepperell of Rough Theory has written a beautiful clarification of a number of her positions regarding capitalism, immanence, the self-reflexivity of theory, and social transformation as a salvo in an ongoing discussion with Joseph Kugelmass and Ryan/Aless that I would like to post in full here as both a way of preventing it from flying under the radar and drawing some connections to Marx and other trends in emancipatory political thought. While much of this post can stand on its own, readers will find it worthwhile to return to N.Pepperell’s original post to get the full context of the discussion. In a lengthy post, N.Pepperell writes:

Fantastic stuff, folks – my thoughts are running in all sorts of directions. Many thanks for this. Let’s see how much sense I can make here.

Joe –

Yes, the term “outside” could be reappropriated to be compatible with an immanent critique. I tend personally to reserve the term “outside” for “nonsymmetrical” theoretical approaches – for approaches that basically offer two different theories – one that explains what capitalism is, and another that explains the standpoint of critique. The issue is that many theories have no idea that they are asymmetrical – whether because they take so for granted a certain notion of human nature, or because they claim not to have a normative standpoint, or because they theorise a “margin” or a potential for “rupture” that is so completely unspecified on a qualitative level that it has no determinate qualitative relationship to capitalism. So, effectively, I tend to use the term “outside” for what, in a Hegelian framework, would be an “abstract negation” – for an approach that rejects something, without explicitly thematising its own determinate relationship to what has been rejected.

I then use terms like “transcendence” or “determinate negation” or similar for the concept you’re trying to capture with the Mobius strip metaphor. No one owns the words, of course – and my terminology isn’t in any way standard. The concepts are the important thing – and you’re correct in taking my point to be that an immanent dialectical theory thematises the way in which something can arise within capitalism, and even fill some determinate role in the replication of that system – and yet, as Benjamin argues, we can still “brush history against the grain”, and use these very things against the context that has given them birth.

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One of the central claims of Whitehead’s thought is that “actual occasions” (his name for “entity”) are the ultimate reasons or grounds of all explanations. “…[A]ctual entities are the only reasons; so that to search for a reason is to search for one or more actual entities” (PR, 24). Alongside of Process and Reality I’ve been reading The Metaphysics of Experience: A Companion to Whitehead’s Process and Reality by Elizabeth Kraus. I recommend this study highly for anyone interested in Whitehead. If others have references to other secondaries I’d be interested in hearing about them as well. I believe some of these remarks are relevant to a discussion of holism and reductivism unfolding over at the Weblog, and especially Dominic Fox’s comments, with which I disagree as they are stated. At one point she gives an outstanding gloss on Whitehead’s conception of philosophy and what it means to give an account, so I’ll just post it here in full, with a few comments at the end, as I have nothing to add to it. I apologize for the lack of commentary on the passages that follow. Occasionally I come across something I find striking and really can do little more than point and grunt like the apes dancing about the obelisk in 2001.

In Modes of Thought Whitehead describes the task of philosophy as ‘the understanding of the interfusion of modes of existence’ (MT, 97). But what does it mean to understand? If the world is taken in its classical sense, any grasp of what Whitehead purports to do in PR and of the way in which he views his speculative scheme as an interpretation of reality is vitiated at the outset. In its Aristotlean meaning, to understand anything is to know it in its causes: to grasp principally its form and purpose. Knowledge, thus interpreted, is a moving away from the thing in its concrete singularity, which qua individual is unintelligible, toward a grasp of the universals which it embodies. To know an object is to be able to place it in its appropriate category, having delimited its genus and differentia. When based on this notion of understanding, philosophy is viwed as purely abstract, a priori, apodictic, and deductive science, whose certainty and purity are a function of its remotion from the concrete.

Whitehead totally repudiates this conception of the philosophical enterprise and the notion of understanding from which it springs. he is a Platonist with respect to knowledge, realizing that it is not theoretical understanding but rather the ability to rule well. If it entails a departure from the concrete, that departure is justified only in virtue of a subsequent return. Even the departure itself takes a different form from that evidenced in the traditional notion of abstract, in which the individuating notes of an object are left aside in the endeavor to seize its universal essentiality. For Whitehead, the movement of abstraction is indeed toward higher generalities, but in the move the individuality of the starting point is not analyzed away. In his view, a fact is understood when it can be placed in a wider systematic context which gives an account of its interconnections with other facts (my bold). The tecnique of analysis presumes that facts are isolated, self-contained units whose character can be revealed by the systematic dissection, and it thereby loses itself in barren abstractions. The true activity of understanding consists in a voyage to abstraction which is in fact a voyage to the more fully concrete: to the system in which the fact is enmeshed. The system as conceptualized may be more abstract than the fact itself in that it is more general, but the real systematic context is more concrete, and its elaboration yields more about the existential relations of the fact.

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One of the marks of theory in the last forty years is a conception of the subject such that the subject is determined and structured through history, structure, language, social context, or some other sort of field in which it is embedded or thrown. Thus in Althusser, for example, the subject is simply a puppet of ideology or an iteration of the total system in which it emerges. In early Lacan the subject falls under the signifier, such that the signifier functions like a prophecy in its unconscious, determining its destiny and the structure of desire. For Foucault and Butler, the subject is a discursive construction and product of power. The merit of these views is the manner in which they overcome abstraction by virtue of thinking entity in relation to its context or the world in which it emerges, rather than treating entity as a simple substance that is self-sufficient. Of course, these positions tend to suffer from another sort of abstraction, for they often treat social and cultural formations as the only determinative elements of context, ignoring the biological body, experience, and the natural world. In terms of the history of philosophy, we could see these paradigms of thought as reactions to the subject-centered systems of thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, where– in his earlier work, at least –there was little attentiveness to what Heidegger referred to as “the worldhood of the world”. To put the matter crudely, the pendulum swung in the other direction. Where prior to this there was a focus on the supremacy of the subject or agent, on its self-determining freedom, there followed a shift towards the supremacy of what Burke refers to as the “scene” in his pentad. Scene (whether in the form of language, economics, power, social structure, etc) becomes determinative of entity, where before it was the agent, the subject, that was seen as determinative. Not surprisingly, we today find the pendulum swinging yet again in the other direction. Exhausted by decades of theory dominated by the primacy of the scene such that all agency seems to merely reinforce structure and power without realizing it, we now find the pendulum swinging once again in the other direction, seeking to enact a return to the agent or agency in the rather poorly developed and abstract accounts of events and truth-procedures in Badiou and the Act in Zizek.

Not unpredictably, these rejoinders suffer from the same abstraction, albeit in inverted form, as the abstraction to be found in Frankfurt school Critical Theory, hermeneutic orientations of thought, and French (Post)Structuralism. Where the former places everything on the side of either history, power, language, social structure, etc., effectively causing the agent to disappear, the latter places everything on the side of the agent, the Act and the truth-procedure, leading any meaningful discussion of socio-historical context and concrete understanding of the situation to disappear. It is difficult, for instance, not to guffaw when Badiou announces that the French Revolution was an event (I fully agree), but then goes on to say that this event marked a complete break with history, as if centuries of subterranian work hadn’t been done during the Rennaissance and early Enlightenment period, slowly transforming the social space, introducing the requisite concepts for a radically egalitarian republic, undermining confidence in governance by the Christian Church and the metaphysics that accompanied that view, and so on. Both solutions are poor. What is needed is an account that is both sensitive to what Burke calls scene, has a rich place for the agent, and, above all is capable of thinking the dialectical relation between these two without falling into abstraction by privileging one pole or the other, turning agent into a mere puppet of scene or ignoring scene altogether in favor of the fantasy of a completely sovereign subject free of any determinations save those it posits for itself.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about both of these orientations of theory is that they are so obviously. One wonders whether some thinkers ever pull their noses out of their books to look at the world about them. Those theorists that assert the primacy of scene (e.g., Althusser, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, Butler, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, perhaps Adorno, etc) seem to miss the obvious point that context, scene, language, power, history, the social, etc., never functions so efficaciously as to smoothly reproduce itself in its agents. As Adam Kotsko points out in a recent post without using these exact terms, subjectivization never quite works as intended. The agents produced in and through structure are never perfect fractal iterations of that context, but always surprise us. There is something novel about each agent that appears in the world that such theories, when taken to their extreme, should exclude a priori as being impossible on theoretical grounds. Yet there it is, subjects going against the total environment in which they were raised, subjects introducing new trajectories into their social system, subjects that share little resemblance to where they came from. On the other hand, those theoretical orientations that assert the supremacy of the sovereign agent seem to fare even worse. Such theories perpetually miss the commonalities we find among populations and in the agent itself, thereby missing the manner in which the agent emerges and is individuated within a scene that it integrates, selects from, and makes its own. Inevitably such theories of the agent (Kierkegaard, Sartre, Zizek, Badiou, certain moments of Lacan), where the agent is prime and supreme, end up trapped within magical thinking, as they’re almost always led to assert a creation ex nihilo. Well, there are no creations ex nihilo for good materialists, whatever Badiou might like to say as he desperately strives to convince his readers that he maintains tied to the Marxist tradition.

What is needed is something entirely different. If we are not to fall into abstraction, we need a theory that both shows how entity arises from a scene, a context, a field (whatever you wish to call it), but, in its process of development, becomes transcendent to that field. That is, we require a conception of the agent that isn’t detached from the field, that isn’t above it and undetermined by it, but also which isn’t strictly determined by the manner in which it prehends the world about it. Rather, there must be something creative and novel in how the world about the agent is prehended, that progressively (not all at once), allows the agent to stand forth from the field and define its own vector of engagement and development… A vector that is no longer simply a fractal iteration of the organization of the field.

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