Fractals


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Over the last couple of weeks, David, of Indifaith, has written a series of posts responding to my characterization of the history of philosophy as a series of attempts to think immanence (here, here, and here). I have been impressed by the openness and interest with which David, a pastor, has approached this discussion, and am genuinely grateful for his probing questions that have helped me to further clarify my own positions. As I recall, Voltaire somewhere or other has a short little essay describing an encounter he had with a Quaker. As is well known, Voltaire, that sparkling giant of the Enlightenment, was certainly no friend of religion and often leveled his acerbic wit at various forms of religious dogmatism, hypocrisy, superstition, and brutality. Yet Voltaire went away from this encounter with nothing but praise for the virtuous nature of the Quaker and his quiet and unassuming inward religious belief. In this exchange, David has comported himself in a similar fashion.

The remark that set off this entire discussion occurred in a thread responding to a passage I had quoted by Guattari, where his sounded remarkably close to Badiou in his critique of postmodernism (the entire exchange can be found here). Responding to some questions by David, I there wrote:

In a number of respects, I draw my distinction between theology and philosophy from Jean-Luc Marion who rigorously tries to define the limit of philosophy. I differ from Marion in holding that theologies that posit transcendence ought to be left behind. I read the history of philosophy as the history of attempts to think immanence. These attempts can be deployed in a variety of ways, can be more or less successful, and the question of whether or not immanence has ever been fully thought is entirely open. By immanence I understand the thesis that we don’t need to refer to anything beyond, or to any intervention outside the world, to explain the world or to account for value. Consequently, when Thales says “all is water”, he is appealing to a principle of explanation that is strictly immanent to the world and is breaking with mythos or narrative explanations of the world such as those found in Greek mythology. To complicate matters more, we can have ontological forms of immanence and epistemological forms of immanence, and various combinations of the two. An account is epistemically immanent if it rejects any form of appeal in establishing a conclusion that cannot be arrived at through reason or some form of experience. That is, epistemological immanence rejects any appeals to privileged esoteric experiences, revelation, etc. Ontological immanence would be the principle that there are no causes outside of natural causes.

I don’t think I’m so much excluding poetry from this project (though philosophy and poetry are distinct), as questioning your characterization of poetry as the articulation of the sacred. Certainly a number of poets would themselves take issue with being characterized as Rilkean. The case of theology is complex. Professional theologians mean so many different things by theology, that it’s difficult to make generalizations. Descartes, for example, would fit the criteria of epistemological immanence in his proofs for the existence of God as his conception of God and proof for the existence of God is not premised on any revelation or esoteric experience, but proceeds through reason in a way that all can repeat. His position does not meet the criteria of ontological immanence, as he conceives God as being outside nature or transcendent to being. Spinoza, and Whitehead’s conception of God as I understand it, do meet the ontological forms of immanence. If these are theologies then they fall within the scope of philosophy. The moment a theology appeals to revelation, whether in the form of sacred texts, the authority of a prophet or man in the form of God, or esoteric, non-repeatable experiences, that theology is no longer in the domain of philosophy, though it can certainly remain of interest as a phenomenon to be studied by the psychoanalyst, sociologist, or the anthropologist.

The concept of “immanence” is relatively new in the history of philosophy (as I understand it, it appears in various scholastic philosophies, but really doesn’t come into prominence as a central theme until Deleuze and Badiou), however, the more I’ve thought about it since initially making this assertion, the more I’ve become convinced that a number of moves in the history of philosophy immediately gain clarity if situated in terms of the problem of immanence. Take, for example, Plato’s Meno and Phaedo. It will be recalled that Plato famously argues that learning is recollection. That is, to learn is not to acquire new information from the outside given to us by a teacher– elsewhere Socrates will refer to himself as a midwife of knowledge, i.e., he does not bestow or give knowledge but only asks questions that allow a person to recollect knowledge they already have –but rather to learn is to recollect an unconscious, innate knowledge. Every beginning philosophy student is baffled by Plato’s theory of learning. Indeed, it is likely that a number of Plato scholars are themselves baffled by Plato’s theory of recollection (as can be seen in the way that it is quickly swept under the rug as but a moment in Plato’s thought). However, as soon as we situate Plato’s theory in terms of the problem of immanence, its motivation suddenly becomes clear. Recall that for Plato, knowledge is not a knowledge of this or that particular thing, but a knowledge of forms, essences, or universals. The problem is that we nowhere encounter forms in sensible experience. This comes out clearly in the Phaedo, when Socrates is discussing the Identical. We never see anything identical in the world. All things differ in some respect or another. Consequently, the story goes, we could not have learned about the identical from experience. Yet we have knowledge of the identical. As Socrates reasons– almost as a proto-Kantian –we could never recognize two things as being the same if we did not first (a priori) know the form of the Identical. Knowledge of the form precedes knowledge of any particulars. So 1) we have the concept of the Identical, and 2) we did not learn this from experience. The grammar of philosophy stipulates that we cannot appeal to authority (“because I said so!”) or revelation as a ground for knowledge. Consequently, we must account for this knowledge in some other ways. The theory of recollection or innate ideas! What marvelous conceptual gymnastics to maintain immanence! What magnificent conceptual creations!

We can see the history of philosophy as a series of attempts to preserve or think immanence. Some of these attempts are more successful than others. Some are more interesting than others. If Deleuze and Guattari are led to describe Spinoza as the “Christ of philosophers”, then this isn’t because Spinoza was a prophet or divine, but because Spinoza went furthest in thinking ontological immanence, or a way of explaining the world that relied on no intervention from anything outside the world, history, or nature (certainly this claim can be disputed). The history of philosophy will therefore be a history of strategies for thinking immanence. Empiricism would be one strategy (whatever is immanent to sensation). Rationalism will be another (whatever is immanent to reason). Transcendental idealism will be yet another, and phenomenology yet another. Each of these strategies generates its own unique problems– like Plato’s problem of learning arising out of the immanence of the forms to thought and their absence to experience –and it would be possible to write a “cartography” of the history of philosophy that charted the problems that emerged as a result of particular drawings of immanence and the conceptual gymnastics and inventions that result as a function of these problems. Some day I would like to work through all of this in much the same way that Marion attempted to work through the problem of givenness in Reduction and Givenness, in hopes of arriving at a point where I could pose the problem of immanence. For immanence itself must be accounted for in terms of immanence, and cannot be treated as a transhistorical form floating about outside the world.

In this connection, David writes,

My only point drawing attention to equations and eggs is that they are assumed to function in a static therefore repeatable manner. I am not convinced this is the case in human relationships and therefore needs to be accounted for in any political theory. I am of course all for careful and reflective observations of human social behaviour.

No disagreements here. The significance I was aiming at with my examples from mathematics and boiling eggs wasn’t their universality, but rather that we have access to these things without having to rely on narratives or stories. We can know these things regardless of whether we are Greek, American, Chinese, Hindu, etc. For instance, arithmetic exists the world over in some form or another, in more or less advanced states, yet we would be tremendously surprised to discover that two groups of people with no communication whatsoever had created, say, baseball.

However, as David here point out, inquiry must be tailored to its object. We already begin to approach this with the case of boiling eggs. The point at which water boils is not universal, but rather depends on other factors such as air pressure, altitude, etc. I have tried to develop the concept of constellations to talk about these sorts of things

Compare a mathematical equation with an armadillo. The value of x for 2x + 4 = 12 is going to be the same for all times and places, independent of context, history, psychological idiosyncrasies, etc. However, if we wish to understand living organisms, we can no longer make these kinds of generalizations. Rather, we have to look at the way the organism fits within a particular constellation such that this constellation is not a global or universal logos, but a local logos or structure with a history, and its own immanent organization that cannot be generalized to other cases. We shouldn’t speak of logos, or a universal law underlying all being, but rather of logoi, or divergent and differing patterns of organization. A good example underlining this point would be the last great meteor impact that wiped out most life on earth. The life that returned subsequent to this event was radically different than the sort of life that existed prior to this event. The lesson to take away from this story is that there aren’t “laws” of life similar to say the Newtonian laws of physics. Rather, we have highly local “logics” (where “logic” here refers to patterns or organizations) that look more like what we refer to as customs than necessities– Customs and styles of matter. Another example would be language. Languages each have their own immanent structure of sounds, their own pattern. We cannot know a priori what this structure of language will be for a particular language because the patterning of sound is differential (it is determined in terms of relations to others sounds that may or may not be present in another language).

Life and language are not universal or particular (where the particular is the instantiation of a species, form, or essence), but is rather singular. However, contrary to Hegel, the singularity of these things in now way precludes our ability to map and comprehend these things, nor does it require any special revelation. In this connection, I think biology is again an excellent example. An organism is always problematic in the sense that it is a solution to a problem within the world. Yet there are many ways of solving one and the same problem. Thus, fur and sweat are one way of solving the problems of heat and cold. There is a frog in Canada, the Eastern wood frog, that solves the problem of cold in another way. When freezing temperatures are reached, the frog itself freezes, effectively dying (there’s no brain or heart activity). When heat returns the frog de-thaws and comes back to life. . . The Christs of the animal world.

Here we have different solutions to one and the same problem. We can transfer this way of thinking to cultural formations. In certain regions of India people eat off a banana leaf with their fingers. Here, of course, we use silverware. The lack of universality involved in these customs doesn’t undermine their intelligibility, nor prevent us from collectively deliberating about these things. I think this is, perhaps, one of the key points about philosophy– It’s only requirement is that of open-ended deliberation with others.

Philosophy begins with the other, the stranger, or the person who does not come from the same cultural background as ourselves. It begins from the standpoint of difference and is an attempt to solve the problem of difference. Philosophy tends to appear in periods of cultural crises– philosophy, by no means, always exists –where traditions have broken down, and we’re no longer able to rely on shared narratives to coordinate human action and the understanding of the world. This is why philosophy is always an affair of the city, rather than the countryside (even when the philosopher lives in a rural region like Heidegger), because the city is a community of strangers, of people coming from all sorts of different backgrounds. This difference in background, this otherness, suspends the possibility of assuming the existence of shared mythos or narratives, requiring the invention of other interpersonal technologies, other ways of grounding social relations.

I think this aspect of philosophy tends to get obscured because of the “book form”. Today we tend to encounter philosophies in the form of books and articles. The book is itself a problem of time, distance, and otherness. Books surmount space and distance, allowing encounters with an absent other that is not present. Leibniz writes his New Essays on Human Understanding, responding to Locke’s Essay point by point. He is in dialogue with Locke even though he’s never met him. We are led astray by Descartes’ Meditations. There it seems that Descartes is simply reflecting privately on what he can know, seeking to ground his knowledge. We forget that the Meditations begin with a letter to the Church, and that he’s perpetually looking for those things that can be repeated. He is constantly with the other. Everything is a Platonic dialogue, even Husserl’s wretched attempts to think the other in the Cartesian Meditations. Unlike Plato, we just forget to add the names of the interlocutors. The difference, then, is that where other stances begin with a certainty, a conviction, such a thing is, for philosophy, a perpetually receding horizon that is only ever approached asymptotically without ever being reached.

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For years now I’ve heard global warming deniers claim that scientists are compelled to endorse the position of anthropogenically caused climate change because the journals of “liberal academia” will not publish articles by climate change skeptics, and because scientists are unable to get grants unless they “tow the party line”. Well, this week Newsweek has an article showing how global warming deniars are in fact the ones making their claims based on monetary incentives, using tactics very similar to those the tobacco industry used to convince the public that the proposed link between cancer and smoking is “only a theory” (similar tactics being used in debates over evolution and intelligent design as well).

I am simply stunned that an article like this has been published in a mass popular media circulation in the United States. For those outside the United States, it might be difficult to comprehend just how bad the reporting the reporting is here. Every story on the news has to present “both sides”, assuming that there always are two sides to a story and that both of these sides have equal credibility. One suspects that were a discussion about Copernicus to emerge, our media outlets would feel compelled to insure that both the geocentric and the heliocentric hypothesis were given equal time and that it was emphasized that both positions were “theories” and that it was therefore up to personal judgment to decide which one is true. This is something I encounter in my students as well (i.e., the idea that everything is an opinion, interpretation, or belief and that all beliefs are on equal footing appears to be trickling down through all of American culture), that manifests itself in sentence structures that have the form “I think”, “I feel”, “I believe”, “It is Socrates’ opinion that…” In short, everything has to be expressed with a minimal subjective distance or skepticism, implicitly suggesting that any claim is already simply a matter of opinion that can then be summarily dismissed (the issue of whether some beliefs are superior to others or some interpretations better than others as a function of both the evidence the proffer and the extent of what their able to explain never even being entertained). No wonder the States are such a mess.

This article, by contrast, does everything that an article on climate deniers should do: it looks carefully at the money links between scientists that deny climate changes and big businesses such as oil and the automotive industry that stand to lose by legislative changes that would require reductions in greenhouse gases, it examines the founding of think tanks designed to wage PR battles of disinformation, and it looks at the climate science, debunking standard talking points as to why global warming should be doubted. All in all it is an excellent article and I wish there were more reporting of this sort in popular press. I’m truly astonished that it was published at all given the heat (pardon the pun) surrounding this issue, and the massive interests in maintaining public skepticism against global warming both at the governmental level and in the world of big business. As is so often the case, we live in a topsy turvy, upside down world, in which the accusations spouted by rightwing critics are in fact the very things that they themselves are guilty of, projected onto the group they wish to slime. This should come as no surprise, given that, due to the predominance of the imaginary in interpersonal relations, our thoughts about others tend to be analogical, we have a tendency to attribute our own motives to other people when attempting to understand why they act as they do. One need only invert the statements of reactionaries leveled against their opponents to get a fairly good idea of what they’re up to in their dark, back room meetings and the privacy of their own homes.

You can read the article here.

Apologies for my lack of responses and postings lately. This last week has seen me doubled over in pain and getting little or no sleep as a result of intense stomach pains. I suspect I’ve developed an ulcer, but my hypochondrial, neurotic mind convinces me that it must be some form of cancer or a rare form of leprosy that only targets the stomach… Or perhaps I’ve contracted one of those aliens from Alien. I suspect this third possibility is the most likely given that I’ve been reading science fiction before bed lately.

At any rate, there have been some truly excellent posts floating about the blogosphere recently. N.Pepperell has written a short, but meaty, post on self-reflexivity, immanence, and theoretical pessimism as a teaser for a project she’ll be developing over the next year. Although she does not mention Badiou, it is interesting to contrast her self-reflexive conception of social transformation with Badiou’s theory of the event which comes from the outside. With his characteristic rigor and beauty, Lars has continued his meditation on the nature of language, unfolding the implications of language for ontology and agency in a heavy dialogue with Deleuze and Guattari among others (here and here). Little John and Ibitsu of Still Water Springs have taken some arrows from my quiver and sent them flying in different and interesting directions (here and here). In the post entitled “Reading”, in particular, he develops far better what I was trying to get at in my post Reading as a Material Event.

All of these interweaving dialogues have left me wondering what philosophy must be, what it must look like, when the mediated and contextual nature of agency is recognized. When one can no longer posit the subject as a ground of transparency and immediate presence, where does one begin without falling into a programmatic dogmatism? How does one begin to ground claims in such a universe? What does an epoche look like when it is no longer the delivery of a pure subject? I have no idea of how to formulate such questions and the alien that has decided to inhabit my stomach makes it difficult to even think about these questions. I certainly don’t wish to assert that philosophy is at an end, though I find myself concerned with what strikes me as dogmatism among a number of structurally influenced thinkers.

All too often I find myself thinking of language, of my reading of a text, as, in itself, a “nothing”. One says that he can adopt a position for or against a text they read, as if the text can simply be thrown to the side and forgotten after being read. Or one says that he can adopt a position of liking or disliking, appreciating or not appreciating, valuing or not valuing, what has been read. In all these cases, the text is treated as an immaterial thing… As a thing without effects, as a thing that is just a “wisp”– A quasi-thing.

But I wonder, how does a physicalist think about the act of reading? What might a neurologist say about reading? If the mind is, as the neurologist contends, the brain then acts of reading and writing are not simply acts of a disembodied spirit that judges, selects, rejects, dismisses, but rather they are irreversible, physical events that transform ones neurology. To read is to create a physical trace that will irreversibly be there. Discourse with another is here no longer an innocent way of passing the time like Socrates beneath the tree with the young, charming and handsome Phaedrus, but is to transform, if only in a small way, both of those involved in a way that is irresolvable and that even has its own chemistry. Somewhere in the film Boogie Nights, Mark Wahlberg’s character speaks of wanting to pull his brain from his head so that he might scrub it clean of the things he’s seen. Isn’t that what it’s like? After we’ve read Marquis de Sade’s Justine or Levinas or Marx or Levi Strauss or Lacan or Plato or Kino Fist or Spurious an irreversible event has taken place, a material transformation has occurred. I choose such a disparate collection intentionally. I am not the same after these things, but rather the trace now clouds those information events taking place in the present, filling the present with echoes of these traces, crowding the present with these echoes, rendering the present always an absence.

In the end it is amazing that we take the act of reading and discoursing so lightly. I would like to think the texts I read are something external to me, something I can cast aside when I grow bored or horrified, thereby being done, but really if I’m a physical system this cannot be done. I am inter-penetrated by the texts I allow to enter me and I cannot be done with them even when I think that I’ve forgotten or finished with them. Perhaps this lends credence to Deleuze’s eternal return in a way that is not simply arrogance or pretension: I shall have been all the names of history in the precise sense that I shall have been the discourses that flow through me, as trace, as an anonymous murmur, where I am naught but the eccentric subject striving to grasp myself in this field of endless traces.

    In Which I Suspect a Larval Thesis

~I do not seek, I find. (Jacques Lacan channeling Picasso in an indirect discourse).

~The ‘bricoleur’ is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand’, that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. The set of the ‘bricoleur’s means cannot therefore be defined in terms of a project (which would presuppose besides, that, as in the case of the engineer, there were, at least in theory, as many sets of tools and materials or ‘instrumental sets’, as there are different kinds of projects). It is to be defined only by its potential use, or putting this another way and in the language of the ‘bricoleur’ himself, because the elements are collected or retained on the principle that ‘they may always come in handy’. Such elements are specialized up to a point, sufficiently for the ‘bricoleur’ not to need the equipment and knowledge of all trades and professions, but not enough for each of them to have only one definite and determine use. They each represent a set of actual and possible relations; they are ‘operators’ but they can be used for any operations of the same type. (The Savage Mind, 17-18).

I suspect that there is an entire materialistic philosophy contained in these remarks, alluding to the emergence of constellations. I wouldn’t be the first. I shall proceed as a bricoleur, collecting what is ready to hand, without any particular project in mind. Perhaps one will emerge after the fact, apres coup, as a whole arising from the parts and existing alongside the set of parts which cannot themselves form a whole.

    In Which I Discuss Some Things So as to Avoid Getting to the Point

In Difference and Repetition Deleuze writes,

The Idea [multiplicity] is defined as a structure. A structure or an Idea is a ‘complex theme’, an internal multiplicity– in other words, a system of multiple, non-localisable connections between differential elements which is incarnated in real relations and actual terms. In this sense, we see no difficulty in reconciling genesis and structure. Following Lautman and Vuillemin’s work on mathematics, ‘structuralism’ seems to us the only means by which a genetic method can achieve its ambitions. It is sufficient to understand that the genesis takes place in time not between on actual term, however small, and another actual term, but between the virtual and its actualisation– in other words, it goes from the structure to its incarnation, from the conditions of a problem to the cases of solution, from the differential elements and their ideal connections to actual terms and diverse real relations which constitute at each moment the actual of time. This is a genesis without dynamism, evolving necessarily in the element of a supra-historicity, a static genesis which may be understood as the correlate of the notion of passive synthesis, and which in turn illuminates that notion. (183)

In many respects it was this very passage that first attracted me to Deleuze years ago. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we accept Saussure conception of language or Levi-Strauss’ conception of cultural. (I am not accepting either, but trying to pose or outline the contours of a particular problem that emerge whenever we talk about systems and structures). For Saussure language is defined as a system, as a set of differential relations between phonemes. A phoneme is not an individual sound, but is rather an opposition: thus, for instance, we have b/p/c. Much to my sister’s delight, my three year old nephew recently discovered Saussurean linguistics. “Mommy,” he said, giggling wildly, “isn’t it funny that if you use b instead of g you can turn ‘boat’ into ‘goat’ and if you use c instead of g you can turn ‘goat’ into ‘coat’?!?” My nephew, the bright young boy he is, had discovered the principle of differentiality. In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze will argue that sense arises from nonsense. It would appear that my nephew is very Deleuzian in the sense that he has discovered that nonsense or the meaningless oppositions among sounds can produce effects of sense. A simple substitution of sound can produce a different meaning.

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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.

N.Pepperell, over at Rough Theory, has written a spectacular post on questions of immanence and self-reflexivity that has generated a nice discussion about different senses of immanence and critical inquiry. As she articulates the conceptual knot,

One of the questions that comes up often in the reading group discussion of my project is why I don’t simply treat core concepts like immanence and self-reflexivity as something like a prioris – as posited starting points, from which the other theoretical moves can then be derived. Everyone involved in the reading group discussion presumably understands the logical contradiction involved in doing this: immanence posits that there is no “outside” to context, and therefore logically rules out the existence of “objective” grounds from which other trusted propositions can then be derived; self-reflexivity follows from immanence, and posits that the theorist remains embedded within the context they are analysing.

Both of these positions carry implications for the form of a theoretical argument, as well as for its content: to be consistent with the principles of immanence and self-reflexivity, the theorist must find the analytical categories that apply to a context, within that context itself. This is sometimes phrased in the form “categories of subjectivity are also categories of objectivity”: the theoretical categories in terms of which the theorist apprehends a context, are generated by the determinate properties of the context itself. Treating concepts like immanence or self-reflexivity as a prioris is an intrinsically asymmetrical approach, which deploys theoretical concepts whose determinate relationship to the context they grasp has not been explained. This asymmetrical move is therefore a performative contradiction, undermining the very concepts whose importance it seeks to assert.

The rest of the post is well worth reading for both the richness of its questions and concepts, but also the clarity with which the problematic is developed. It has been very exciting to watch N.Pepperell develop this line of thought in recent months, even if I don’t agree with all of it.

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