Sartre


Pete, over at Philosophy in a Time of Error, has an interesting, albeit brief, post up on Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason. Pete writes:

My point on Sartre was simply that I think he explains the pre-evental in a way that I find Adrian Johnston and others (Nick S. has written on this, too, as has Peter Hallward) have all wrestled with in Badiou’s work. Adrian Johnston in his new work points out that Badiou doesn’t really have an account of desire that would be a condition within a given set such that one would act for the event in question. Now, I think one could in a sense use the language of scarcity in Sartre, much derided, as but another way of speaking of lack, and thus I actually think in this way Zizek is more of Sartrean than Badiou, since he sides with Sartre on history, the void of the subject, and a certain freedom at the heart of any given structure. That’s a bit broad, of course, but I figure for a blog post, it’s better to be simplistic and provoke more than subtle and dusty about it. Of course, in Sartre, organizations such as the group in fusion are post-evental, too, and I think Badiou was wrong to stipulate in his move away from Sartre that for him the political was reducible to the historical. And in any case, Badiou never satisfactorally bridges the metapolitical and the situated worlds in Logic of Worlds and Being and Event. It’s a subtraction procedure, to be sure, but in the end I find Sartre tells me more about, say, hunger, than set theory does. That’s simplistic, but again, the first thing one thinks when one reads Badiou is something just this snarky, and I don’t know if that’s really ever answered, except through a lot of steps wind in too many circles up to an air too rarified.

Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason is, I think, one of the most unjustly neglected works in political theory. I’m really not sure why this is or what happened here. There is, of course, the infamous Levi-Strauss review. And the language of the text is barbarous (but what text in Continental philosophy isn’t?). And I’m certainly aware that the work is prized highly by Jameson, Badiou, Bourdieu, and Deleuze and Guattari. Nonetheless, it seems like a text that somehow fell through the cracks, never having the impact or hearing it deserved. With any luck there will be a resurgence of interest in the work.

My love of it has always been because of the manner in which it conceptualizes groups in fusion and the practico-inert. With neo-Marxist theory, especially that coming out of the Althusserian school, I’ve always felt that there’s too little focus on group formation and too much emphasis on critical breaks and whatnot. I’m not sure how social structures are to be changed without flourishing group formations or the formation of subject-groups. But if you begin paying attention to questions of group formation, then all sorts of questions arise as to how groups are formed and maintain themselves. I don’t see these questions really being posed at all in contemporary theory. As a result, what you get is a critique of reigning social conditions, how capital functions, ideology, and whatnot, but you don’t really get much in the way of an account of praxis as to how these “structures” might be changed. This is, in part, exactly what Sartre is trying to do in The Critique of Dialectical Reason. While he certainly develops a critique of the contemporary world, his mode of analysis is squarely focused on questions of praxis or how group formations (what he calls “subject-groups”, think Marx’s thesis that the proletariat is the “subject”) come into being and take of the force of transforming “structures”. This is a very different sort of question than the critical question or the question of ideology. Deleuze and Guattari try to complete this project in Anti-Oedipus, yet their nods at Sartre and his subject-groups are far too impressionistic to really provide much in the way of a well developed theory of praxis.

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Towards the beginning of his Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre writes:

“How can we accept this doubling of personality? How can a man who is lost in the world, permeated by an absolute movement coming from everything, also be this consciousness sure both of itself and of the Truth. It is true that Naville observes that ‘these centres of reaction elaborate their behaviour according to possibilities which, at the level both of the individual and of the species, are subject to an unalterable and strictly determined development…’, and that ‘experimentally established reflex determinations and integrations enable one to appreciate the narrowing margin within which organic behaviour can be said to be autonomous’. We obviously agree with this; but the important thing is Naville’s application of these observations, which inevitably lead to the theory of reflection, to endowing man with constituted reason; that is, to making thought into a form of behaviour strictly conditioned by the world (which of course it is), while neglecting to say that it is also knowledge of the world. How could ’empirical’ man think? Confronted with his own history, he is as uncertain as when he is confronted by Nature, for the law does not automatically produce knowledge of itself– indeed, if it is passively suffered, it transforms its object into passivity, and thus deprives it of any possibility of collecting its atomised experiences into a synthetic unity. Meanwhile, at the level of generality where he is situated, transcendental man, contemplating laws, cannot grasp individuals. Thus, in spite of ourselves, we are offered two thoughts, neither of which is able to think us, or, for that matter, itself: the thought which is passive, given, and discontinuous, claims to be knowledge but is really delayed effect of external causes, while the thought which is active, synthetic and desituated, knows nothing of itself and, completely immobile, contemplates a world without thought. Our doctrinaires have mistaken for a real recognition of Necessity what is actually only a particular form of alienation, which makes their own lived thinking appear as an object for a universal Consciousness, and which reflects on it as though it were the thought of the other.

We must stress this crucial fact: Reason is neither a bone nor an accident. (30-31)

Recently I’ve been making a sustained effort to work my way through Marx’s massive Capital, while also returning to Deleuze’s collaborative works with Guattari, in a sustained attempt to think in a more concrete, rigorous, and philosophical way about the nature of the social (as opposed to dogmatically making sociological and psychoanalytic claims without grounding them philosophically). In certain respects, I think questions of how to think about the social and the Other have haunted philosophy for a century. With the emergence of the social sciences in the form of anthropology/ethnography, linguistics, psychoanalysis, sociology, history, and sociology, philosophy, I would argue, found its assumptions significantly challenged. Since the 17th century the schema of philosophical thought has been relatively straightforward: there is a subject whose contents of consciousness are immanent and immediate to itself (whether one is an empiricist or a rationalist) and therefore are certain (hence the fact Hume is certain of his impressions but can maintain doubt maintaining the objects that presumably cause them), and there is an object that the subject seeks to know. The social sciences significantly complicate this schema. For example, Levi-Strauss is able to show, in The Savage Mind and the Mythologiques, that there is an unconscious thought process that takes place, as it were, behind the back of the subject, both determining the thought process of the subject and creating a symbolic-categorical web, “thrown” over the world, sorting objects in various ways that can’t simply be reduced to the predicates or properties (the “primary qualities”) that belong to the “objects themselves”. This is the significance of Levi-Strauss’s extensive, often exhausting, discussion of how plants are sorted in The Savage Mind and his analysis of how the symbolic categories of the /raw/, the /boiled/, and the /cooked/ function with regard to the sorting of objects in the world (I use the convention “//” to denote the status of these entities as signifiers rather than predicates or “primary qualities” really inhering in an object). Similar results emerge from psychoanalysis– particularly in its Lacanian formulation, though also in Freud –linguistics, economics, sociology, and so on.

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