02 January 2007

Forcing the Event

Now that I'm home again I have been busily pulling together material for my article on Zizek and Badiou. In particular, I have been reading Adrian Johnston's article "The Quick and the Dead: Alain Badiou and the Split Seeds of Transformation" and an earlier piece he was kind enough to share with me, entitled "From the Spectacular Act to the Vanishing Act: Badiou, Zizek, and the Politics of Lacanian Theory", which is forthcoming in an anthology entitled Slavoj Zizek in a Post-Ideological Universe (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007). I have to confess that I feel a bit of envy, coupled with admiration, with respect to Johnston's work. Both of us graduated about the same time and have similar research orientations. Last year he published his first book, Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive, has a second book forthcoming with Northwestern entitled Zizek's Ontology, and a third under review tentatively titled The Cadence of Change: Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations. All of this coupled with numerous and lengthy articles floating about various journals. Johnston's work is characterized by an exceptional degree of clarity, coupled with a penetrating and deep understanding of Lacanian psychoanalysis and German idealism, and an astonishing mastery of Lacan's seminar (published and unpublished), and Zizek's and Badiou's respective bodies of work. I suspect that we'll be hearing Johnston's name a good deal in the future.

What I find particularly interesting in Johnston's latest article is the idea of forcing an event. As those of you familiar with his work know, Badiou's idea is that truth proceeds from a sudden event that erupts within a situation only to disappear just as quickly. The event is that which is not counted by the structure or encyclopedia governing the situation, and stands on the edge of the void foundational to the situation. The idea is that the event is unmediated by the historical and semiotic space structuring a social situation and thus provides a point of leverage outside of power for producing a truth. A "truth-procedure" is thus that activity that consists in reconfiguring the elements of a situation in terms of the event. The key point is that the event is unconditioned by the situation in which it occurs. It cannot be explained on the basis of what came before, nor can it even be demonstrated to have taken place. It's only through the nomination of those that discern the event and bear fidelity to its implications that the event is sustained. Thus, for instance, from the standpoint of dominant power something like the French Revolution simply looks like a chaotic eruption of disorder such that social relations need to be returned to ordinary order. From the standpoint of the revolutionaries, however, the revolution is a break with all prior history demonstrating concretely the contingency of reigning social relations and announcing the possibility of an egalitarian alternative. The revolutionaries can never demonstrate that the revolution was truly a revolution (and not just chaos erupting from such and such historical and semiotic conditions), but nonetheless sustain this event through their subsequent activism-- The work of reconfiguring and reconceptualizing society according to the egalitarian promise of the revolution. The agents of this reconfiguration are what Badiou refers to as "subjects" (prior to your subjectivization by such an event you're merely an individual, according to Badiou), and the activism of these subjects is what Badiou refers to as "truth-procedures". The advantage of Badiou's approach is, I think, obvious. In one fell swoop he has managed to side-step reigning claims of historicism, postmodern thought, and ordinary language philosophy, all of which, in one way or another, attempt to show how every phenomenon is mediated by a horizon of relations that overdetermine their being. All of this is done through a sort of performative notion of truth (in Austin's sense) that shows how it is possible to subtract something from a situation that then becomes a sort of self-referential organization unfolding its own implications (Badiou demonstrates the possibility of such a subtraction with exceptional rigor in Being and Event and Logiques des mondes).

The standard criticism of Badiou's work (coming from exemplary scholars of his work such as Peter Hallward) is that despite its attempt to redeem a universalist politics (genuine events are addressed to everyone, i.e., everyone can be taken up as a subject of a true event or an activist) there's a way in which this conception of the political risks producing its opposite: a quietistic defeatism. If this is the case, then it is because we must await an event in order to engage in the process of a truth-procedure as a subject. In my view, this criticism is less worrisome than it immediately sounds as there are still events we can participate in today as subjects such as the Greek event of philosophy, the implications that continue to reverberate from the French and Russian revolutions, the Galileo event in science, etc. Nonetheless, Hallward and Johnston do have a point.

What Johnston proposes is the possibility of forcing an event itself. Under my reading we can ask does Badiou give an accurate account of how revolutionary change truly takes place? For Badiou truth-procedures follow an event. Thus we have the eruption of the French Revolution and the truth-procedure is the arduous work that follows this eruption in transforming society according to the ideals announced therein. But is this an accurate picture of what takes place with regard to something like the French Revolution? Badiou's concern seems to be with the manner in which historicism tends to conceptualize everything in terms of continuity, thereby undermining the possibility of something genuinely new appearing in history (as every event is overdetermined by its past). Under this reading, every event would be one more formation of what Badiou calls "the state of a situation" or the transcendental regime governing what is counted as belonging to a situation (something akin to Foucaultian epistemes and power-structures-- in an interview Badiou explicitly refers to Foucault as a philosopher of the encyclopedia).

However, it seems to me that this conception of history is deeply underdetermined and misses the polysemy characterizing our relationship to the historical. On the one hand, given that history is mediated by the signifier, I do not think it can be legitimately argued that history is unidirectional and monolithic in its conditioning. Just as in the case of psychoanalysis where the history of an analysand is "what will have been" through the narration that takes place in the analytic setting such that we cannot say that the past was already there determining the symptoms of the analysand, so too does social history produce itself as history through the narrativization of those agents in the social field. It was Hegel, of course, who argued that we're never simply determined by grounds but always posit our own grounds or determinations. For instance, I am not simply influenced by this or that body of texts, but must, as it were, make the prior decision (even if not ever explicitly before consciousness) to be influenced by something. No doubt many of us are familiar with reading texts (perhaps as graduate students) that slid off our backs like water on a duck, not because we didn't understand these texts but because we had no libidinal and transferential relation to these texts that would allow them to be influences in our intellectual development. Indeed, there's something uncanny in that experience where one suddenly finds that a text that did not "address" us at all suddenly comes to address us, as if the grounds we posit for ourselves have changed entirely.

The relation of influence is thus not unidirectional such that we're thrown into an environment and are simply formed in a passive fashion by that environment. Rather, there's a way in which we always already have chosen the way in which we're open to the world. And, I think, the case is not dissimilar at the level of the social. Social movements posit their own grounds in history, as can be seen in the way Christo-Nationalist Fundamentalists attempt to read United States history as unfolding on Christian grounds ("the United States was founded as a Christian nation"). Through this sort of auto-historicization the agents of a situation temporalize and produce their present and their being-towards-the-future. The point I'm rather clumsily trying to make, is that, on these grounds, it becomes possible to think a pluralism of historical universes unfolding simultaneously according to regular chronological time such that the agents of these historical universes cannot be said to inhabit one and the same historical universe yet still somehow interact with one another. I, for instance, tend to temporalize my present in terms of a particular historicization of the Enlightenment that is very different than the one I encounter often among my fellow citizins where time is historized in terms of a Christian legacy.

The point I want to make is thus two-fold: On the one hand, historism need not be understood as a way of conceiving everything as hegemonically governed by the "transcendental regime" or structure governing a situation. Rather, the production of a history can be understood as a way of producing a separation or subtraction from the dominant constraints of a situation. Thus, for instance, if we look at the history of the Enlightenment we discover that Enlightenment thinkers constructed a counter-history against the history dominated by Scripture and Aristotle, that made reference to thinkers such as Socrates, Sextus Empiricus, Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius (a huge presence once a rotting copy of his De Rerum Natura was rescued from a heap of books at a Seminary that was used to rip scraps of paper from), Diogenes, Tacitus, and especially Cicero and Seneca. In producing this history, the Rennaissance thinkers and Enlightenment thinkers created libidinal and transferential relations, identifications, for themselves that gave them the capacity to re-imagine their social universe or universe of meaning. They simultaneously posited their own grounds and were produced in and out of these grounds. Here the production of a counter-history allowed them, as it were, to step out of the dominant historical currents of the situation in which they emerged.

This brings me to my second point: Assuming that Badiou treats the French Revolution as an event, perhaps the true political work isn't to be seen in the activities that followed this sudden eruption, but rather, in all the efforts that led up to the major revolutions. That is, on the basis of the history they were constructing for themselves (and by which they were also being constructed), the Rennaissance and Enlightenment thinkers busily set about re-interpreting the dominant elements of their situation in terms of what they were discovering in the Ancients (albeit in a way that didn't simply repeat these ancients in a scholarly way... One need only read Hume as a repetition of Epicurus, Lucretius, Sextus Empiricus, and the Roman rhetors-- of whom he had almost encyclopedic knowledge --to see how repetition produces a difference or isn't just repetition of the same). This recoding of the social space led to a transformation of instutions, reigning doxa and assumptions, and produced entirely new communities of people (such as the Salons that Acephalous recently spoke of). Moreover, the case can be made that in many cases those Rennaissance and Enlightenment thinkers certainly didn't see themselves as sowing the seeds of eventual revolution (especially in the case of the Rennaissance thinkers) nor even as contesting the primacy of theological conceptions of the world (in many cases such thinkers defended these conceptions). All that is required is not a commitment to producing a revolution, but rather the repetition of certain arguments, certain ways of thinking, certain themes, that have the effect of effectuating this change themselves through their repetition and subsequent elaboration. That is, the high church apologist that calls for compromise and who points out that some of the Enlightenment ideas should be embraced while still championing traditional Scriptural inerrancy has already lost the game without realizing it simply by repeating the arguments and endorsing them. He's like the coyote that has run over the cliff and just hasn't yet looked down. If there should be no worry over flat-earth intelligent design folk, then this is because their very decision to endorse scientific methodology (even if a cynical rhetorical deception) means that they've lost the game from the outset... Subsequent history will take care of them as their students, who unlike them take their rhetoric seriously and honestly, attempt to repeat their claims according to scientific methology and fail. The moment they adopted the rhetoric of science they had already lost at the level of form, even if at the level of content they nonetheless believe themselves to be significantly challenging established science. They have converted without realizing they've converted in much the same way that the believer who takes anti-depressents and buys life and disaster insurance reveals more truthfully their own beliefs even if not before self-aware consciousness.

Viewed in this light, the event of the revolutions themselves comes to be viewed not so much as the inaugural moment where a politics was instantiated and subjects of truth-procedures emerged, but rather as the "dotting of the i's" marking the culmination of the real work that had already been done, where the social sphere suddenly became self-reflexively aware that everything had changed when it wasn't looking, that the old order no longer existed. What we have here is something very much like a speciation through geographical isolation in biology, but where the operative dimension is speciation through historization of a particular type of temporalization.

Zizek gives a nice example of what I'm trying to get at apropos his reading of Hegel's analysis of the beautiful soul in The Sublime Object of Ideology. There Zizek writes,
To exemplify this logic of 'positing the presuppositions', let us take one of the most famous 'figures of consciousness' from Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit: the 'beautiful soul'. How does Hegel undermine the position of the 'beautiful soul', of this gentle, fragile, sensitive form of subjectivity which, from its safe position as innocent observer, deplores the wicked ways of the world? The false of the 'beautiful soul' lies not in its inactivity, in the fact that it only complains of a depravity without doing something to remedy it; it consists, on the contrary, in the very mode of activity implied by this position of inactivity-- in the way the 'beautiful soul' structures the 'objective' social world in advance so that it is able to assume, to play in it the role of the fragile, innocent and passive victim. this, then, is Hegel's fundamental lesson: when we are active, when we intervene in the world through a particular act, the real act is not this particular, empirical, factual intervention (or non-intervention); the real act is of a strictly symbolic nature, it consists in the very mode in which we structure the world, our perception of it, in advance, in order to make our intervention possible, in order to open in it the space for our activity (or inactivity). The real act thus precedes the (particular factual activity; it consists in the previous restructuring of our symbolic universe into which our (factual, particular) act will be inscribed.

To make this clear, let us take the care of the suffering mother as the 'pillar of the family': all other members of the family-- her husband, her children --exploit her mercilessly; she does all the domestic work and she is of course continually growning, complaining of how her life is nothing but mute suffering, sacrifice without reward. The point, however, is that this 'silent sacrifice' is her imaginary identification: it gives consistency to her self-identity-- if we take this incessant sacrificing from her, nothing remains; she literally 'loses ground'. (215-6)
Viewed from this perspective, it is the "act before the act", the symbolic act that first opens the world as a space for a particular type of action that political engagement should focus upon. Indeed, we can ask, contra Badiou, how those engaged in the revolution first became capable of perceiving a particular situation as a revolutionary situation without first having undergoing some fundamental transformation at the level of the symbolic structuration that rendered them open to such a perception and action. Or, at least, this is the direction in which my thoughts are currently moving... A praxis that targets symbolic structuration itself, thereby opening the space for an event yet to come.

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6 Comments:

Anonymous N. Pepperell said...

I like this - I tend to find it useful to think of revolutionary moments as realisations of a great deal that has come before, preparing for a rapid transition. I particularly love this formulation:

Viewed in this light, the event of the revolutions themselves comes to be viewed not so much as the inaugural moment where a politics was instantiated and subjects of truth-procedures emerged, but rather as the "dotting of the i's" marking the culmination of the real work that had already been done, where the social sphere suddenly became self-reflexively aware that everything had changed when it wasn't looking, that the old order no longer existed.

Of course, the way in which a revolutionary moment itself articulates and interprets whatever potentials have been constituted over time, also has a very powerful effect - revolutions do not just open up possibilities; they also close them off...

I've sometimes (not consistently...) tended to talk in terms of the revolutionary articulation of potentials, rather than in terms of the achievement of self-reflexivity, when discussing this sort of thing, mainly because "self-reflexivity" generally has a positive valance in theoretical work - we think of achieving self-reflexivity as a good thing - but revolutionary moments can actualise and close off a wide range of potentials, not always good. Sometimes, after a period of gradual trasformation, there is still a pivotal shorter-term battle over how a rapid revolutionary transformation will come to be interpreted, and therefore enacted... This is in many ways how I see the transformations that took place quite rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s: as the realisation of many of the potentials fought for by movements who would have been horrified by the actual form in which those potentials were then actualised...

But I'm sure this is too condensed to make any sense... ;-P

I also really like this:

Viewed from this perspective, it is the "act before the act", the symbolic act that first opens the world as a space for a particular type of action that political engagement should focus upon. Indeed, we can ask, contra Badiou, how those engaged in the revolution first became capable of perceiving a particular situation as a revolutionary situation without first having undergoing some fundamental transformation at the level of the symbolic structuration that rendered them open to such a perception and action. Or, at least, this is the direction in which my thoughts are currently moving... A praxis that targets symbolic structuration itself, thereby opening the space for an event yet to come.

I think it's extremely important - not just for theorising revolutionary transformation, but also for understanding much more garden variety arguments about historical causation - to ask how and why people become receptive to "causes". When I was still trying to be an historian, I had endless arguments with people, who felt that the "gold standard" of historical explanation was to be able to say, e.g., "this person delivered this paper, which was then heard by that person, who then donated some money to these institutes" etc. Yes, of course: but this actually doesn't explain the receptivity to particular concepts that makes these sorts of individual connections more likely to take place - an issue that becomes particularly important when we want to make sense of mass movements...

At the same time, there are attempts to explain receptivity that treat people quite passively - a sort of "if you write it, they will believe" approach, that doesn't leave room for asking how people might become primed for and against particular kinds of messages in particular circumstances.

It's possible that beginning to address these issues might require a more robust notion of what you call "symbolic structuration" than many approaches offer. I've been interested for a while now in shifts of practices that sometimes take place for quite minor reasons within an existing symbolic structure, but that nonetheless involve a slight shift in perception and thought that can sometimes have a corrosive effect on the environment that generated the original practice... The example you provide - of groups adopting terms of discourse that will ultimately favour a position the group is trying to oppose - might be, in a sense, a late stage within an historical process...

But this probably won't make much sense written like this (and is, in any event, all very speculative on my part).

Very nice to see you posting again... :-)

January 03, 2007 12:25 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

"I think it's extremely important - not just for theorising revolutionary transformation, but also for understanding much more garden variety arguments about historical causation - to ask how and why people become receptive to "causes". When I was still trying to be an historian, I had endless arguments with people, who felt that the "gold standard" of historical explanation was to be able to say, e.g., "this person delivered this paper, which was then heard by that person, who then donated some money to these institutes" etc. Yes, of course: but this actually doesn't explain the receptivity to particular concepts that makes these sorts of individual connections more likely to take place - an issue that becomes particularly important when we want to make sense of mass movements...

At the same time, there are attempts to explain receptivity that treat people quite passively - a sort of "if you write it, they will believe" approach, that doesn't leave room for asking how people might become primed for and against particular kinds of messages in particular circumstances."

I think this really gets to the core of the issue. To put it in Kantian terms: "What are the conditions for the possibility of being influenced." I've seen some work done among the systems theory that's promising in that it analyzes the manner in which systems are selectively open to their environment, but the problem here, I think, is that there's a tendency among systems theorists to place too much emphasis on the agency and autonomy of the system to the detriment of the environment. In many instances I did not explicitly choose my own influences, yet I wasn't simply a passive formation of pre-existent influences either. As I've expressed it in this post, my choice of words still gives too much an impression of sovereign agency, suggesting that a subject/system/agent has absolute freedom in determining influence like Munchausen pulling himself out of the quicksand by his own bootstraps. I think there's a complicated dialectic here, but I can't quite get my head around... A way in which we're simultaneously thrown into influences and choose our influences. At the very least, over againt "strong historicism" I think it needs to be emphasized that history isn't simply a container into which an agent is thrown and subsequently individuated, but rather that we're only selectively open to historical influences. Many of us, I'm sure, are familiar with the person absolutely obsessed with some obscure figure or set of issues and are baffled as to how they could come to be influenced by these things... Almost as if they exist in a different socio-cultural space or field.

"I've been interested for a while now in shifts of practices that sometimes take place for quite minor reasons within an existing symbolic structure, but that nonetheless involve a slight shift in perception and thought that can sometimes have a corrosive effect on the environment that generated the original practice... The example you provide - of groups adopting terms of discourse that will ultimately favour a position the group is trying to oppose - might be, in a sense, a late stage within an historical process..."

I think this is probably right. A glance at educational practices during the early Enlightenment period is illuminating. Students were often taught Greek philosophers and Roman orators as part of their training for gaining profeciency with languages necessary for reading Scripture. Somehow, and I stress the "somehow", many of these students came to prefer the vitality of these Greek and Roman thinkers to Scripture and the Scholastics. This would be an example where something was being disseminated in the social field for very different purposes. For me the question becomes that of why these figures the students were reading and who had, in many cases, been read for many decades, suddenly came to resonate in a different way in the social space than they had hitherto resonated. Why is it that "authoritative interpretations" began to break down (for instance, Seneca had hitherto been read in a "Christianized" way rather than according to the letter of the text) so that alternative readings became possible? I don't have an answer to that sort of question.

At the outset of Being and Time, Heidegger gives a sort of phenomenology of questioning where he distinguishes between the Gefractes (what is inquired about), the Befragte (what is interrogated), and the Erfragte (what is to be found out in the asking) (SZ 5-8). The paradox here is similar to Meno's paradox, where there's a way in which one must already know if one is to learn (as we must know what we're inquiring about). This is a paradox of history as well. There's a way in which we must already know what is to be found in history to find the "Erfragte". This, I think, is a familiar phenomenon. You pose a question and suddenly you discover an entire body of research and phenomena out there in the world responding to your question, as if it were suddenly summoned into being by the act of questioning. So, then, the question becomes how is it possible that this alternative history suddenly emerged or came into being at this precise time. The story of how Lucretius' De Rerum Natura was recovered is, in this regard, remarkable. This was a key text of the Enlightenment due to it's commitment to immanence (it's atomism), its focus on pleasure and freedom from anxiety, its assertion that laws are manmade not divinely decreed, and its critique of superstitition. Yet it had been lost for many years. It's almost as if he fortuitously had to appear at this precise time as a tain through which the Enlightenment thinkers might mirror themselves. But why is it that we must give ourselves these doubles in order to reflect ourselves? I'm babbling.

January 03, 2007 2:06 AM  
Anonymous N Pepperell said...

I'll have to apologise in advance - I've just come out of a particularly annoying meeting, and thinking feels a bit lifting sieving sand at the moment... But I wanted to try to respond - I don't think you're babbling in the slightest, and I think this problem is a particularly important one.

First to indicate that I strongly share your sense that the underlying metaphors that are so often used for conceptualising context - "systems" and such - are insufficiently nuanced: they imply a uniformity and a closure in historical contexts that is, I think, rather easy to contradict empirically - and, in any event, is very poorly suited for trying to theorise any kind of critical perspctive, as these approaches - whether explicitly or tacitly - are essentially oriented to explaining social reproduction...

What has unfortunately tended to happen - not universally, of course, but often -is that opposing approaches have set themselves up in a dichtomous opposition to theories of social reproduction. So you get this antinomy between simplified models of social context as a kind of closed historical feedback loop, on the one hand, and on the other, theories of the radical break - the leap outside of context. For all their apparent conflict, both approaches share the common assumption that context could only and ever be conceptualised as a self-reproducing system.

What I want to try to do - and this is one of the reasons I've really enjoyed your posts on this issue - is to see whether we can instead conceptualise "context" in a more nuanced way, so that we can better understand how, as beings embedded in contexts, we often do reproduce them - but sometimes, significantly, we do something new - but new in a determinate (as in "qualitatively specific", not as in "pre-determined") way, where there is some connection between our actions over time, and our realisation that something new has become possible for us to achieve...

I've tended to approach this by trying to think intellectual and social history together, watching how tacit shifts in perception and thought captured in the written record track with tacit shifts in the underlying logics of social practices that are often not thought about as having their own "intellectual" elements. My sense is that there is potential for a feedback loop of a peculiar kind here, because we don't "think" with part of ourselves - the part, for example, that reads classical texts - and "do" with another part - the part that interacts with family members, for example, or sells its labour on the market... ;-P

And one implication of this is that small shifts in apparently isolated areas of practice - the institutional decision to use a particular text, or the rise of a new technology, or similar - might prime us in a form of perception or thought that - because forms of perception and thought are portable - we can then potentially apply to quite unrelated things.

I have wondered whether, at least sometimes, when something old suddenly begins to resonate in a very new way, or when the same long-term puzzle comes suddenly to be independently solved by several people, or when a new fashion takes the world by storm, something like this might help us make sense of the phenomenon: it may be that a small shift in some practice suddenly makes it possible for us to encounter dimensions of other practices as "familiar" - or makes it more likely that we will improvise in specific ways - and then experience those improvisations as somehow "natural" or "commonsensical", because they "click" with sensibilities primed in other dimensions of our practice.

I tend to see this "always already familiar" experience as both creative and seductive: it can lead us to overthrow old oppressions, but it can also blind us - luring us to rush forward to institute what we feel are more "natural" social arrangements, without asking how we have come to experience such things as natural... Self-reflection, within this context, becomes a process of denaturalising, not just the social arrangements we are trying to dismantle, but also the ones we are trying to erect, so that we can then begin to make decisions with greater awareness of the potentials available to us...

In terms of your comments on Lucretius: I tend to think of this sort of thing along the same lines that I think of moments where the same "discovery" is made simultaneously by multiple people. The time was "ripe" for a text of this sort to have an impact of this sort. If this text hadn't appeared, there still would have been very high receptivity to something that could provide the basis for a similar identification. It might have been, of course, that nothing else suitable could have been found - but the probability of finding (and recognising the significance) of something is considerably higher than it would have been in another time. At the same time, though, it is not without significance or impact that a specific text (or practice, or discovery, or whatever the equivalent is that we're trying to understand) should come to occupy a pivotal role: potentials are, I tend to think, necessarily always wider and more fluid than their actualisations will ever be. Potentials motivate the search for particular types of actualisations - but they don't dictate the actualisation chosen, which will be a matter both of contingency and of political struggle...

It is therefore of pivotal significance, when a time is searching for its mirror, which reflection is at hand. And that specific reflection will shape and distort the awareness of potential in determinate ways. I think of things like the resonance of neoliberal metanarratives in this light: with much of the left split between a kind of denial fuelled by its over-identification with the welfare state, on the one hand, and a very abstract and negative form of critique, on the other, the right had an easier time mobilising a competing narrative for articulating a particular transformation were on the right... (Too simplistic, I know... I'm very tired and am not doing the issue any kind of justice...) Politically, I tend to think it's extremely important to become sufficiently self-reflexive that we can begin to appreciate why certain forms of perception and thought might be "in the air", to have a sense of the ways in which this kind of priming doesn't predetermine its own actualisation - and then a vision of the kinds of actualisation we're seeking... But I think I'm just driving off a cliff here... ;-P You were worried about babbling... ;-P

One final point, and I'll let it rest. You've asked why we need to give ourselves doubles - in a sense, why it's so difficult to become self-reflexive, and to recognise our desires as our own... Your tacit answer, I gather, would be psychological? I don't disagree, but I've been specifically interested in the ways in which our overarching social context (which I tend to view much more abstractly than most theorists do) might make this even more difficult in particular ways. I don't have a fully worked out position on this (not that I do on anything else I've written here - but this final point is still very, very fuzzy for me). I have an intuition that we exist in an unusual complex, layered historical context that both makes concepts like "social context" readily available to us, but also tends to make us wield those concepts in overly concretistic ways - because there are elements of our social context that seem to justify such an interpretation... I think this then makes it a bit more likely that people can become confused about the origins or "grounds" of concepts that are critical of those concrete institutions - those critical concepts suddenly appear not to be "social" at all, because they seem to be aimed against all the sorts of things we think comprise "the social". This situation makes it historically and socially more plausible that people will then attribute their critical insights to "nature", or "history", or "common sense", because these critical concepts don't seem to have a clear connection to concrete social institutions...

But this probably doesn't make any sense... ;-) All of this is basically an overly-long way of saying I think these are vital questions - questions I'm probably making not terribly much sense on myself, but questions that I think are pivotal to think about in a sophisticated way...

Sorry for the overlong post. I probably should have tossed this up at rough theory, instead of cluttering your comments, but am trying not to push a guest blogger's post too far down the page... ;-P

January 03, 2007 7:05 PM  
Anonymous Kenneth Rufo said...

"think this really gets to the core of the issue. To put it in Kantian terms: "What are the conditions for the possibility of being influenced." I've seen some work done among the systems theory that's promising in that it analyzes the manner in which systems are selectively open to their environment, but the problem here, I think, is that there's a tendency among systems theorists to place too much emphasis on the agency and autonomy of the system to the detriment of the environment. In many instances I did not explicitly choose my own influences, yet I wasn't simply a passive formation of pre-existent influences either."

You know, there is a field that actually spends a fair amount of time on this exact question: rhetoric. It's got a long tradition, it precedes philosophy, and there's a subfield that deals with social movements, though I can't speak to the quality of that scholarship.

For particular people you might enjoy, I suppose I'm obligated to suggest Kenneth Burke, though he's hardly my cup of tea. I'd also recommend a few contemporary scholars: Celeste Condit (she's done some ideographic studies of abortion, genetics, and a few other topics), Barb Biesecker (articles more than book, though her Addressing Postmodernity is pretty good), Michael Hyde (more of an ethical, Levinas/Heidegger influenced version of rhetoric), John Durham Peters (his Speaking Into the Air is masterful), and Christine Harold (who's book OurSpace comes out in April). I can be more specific if you have a particular example of symbolic structuration you're grappling with, or if you can clarify what such a structuration might be in practice.

Not that rhetoricians have any particularly final answer, but it might be useful to look at the stuff.

As for the dialectical arrangement you're alluding to, I'd at least advocate some engagement with Bourdieu, since his theory of structuration is predicated on a conception of agency as a dialectic between habitus and agent.

January 09, 2007 4:28 PM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Thanks for the references, Kenneth. I actually work a good deal with rhetoric already and, in particular, with a number of the theorists you mention (you'll find a number of posts on this blog discussing rhetoric favorably). My take is that the strong opposition between philosophy and rhetoric that you often find among rhetoricians is unfruitful, and that instead the relationship should be seen in terms of something akin to the Lacanian real or a Zizekian parallax where the ancient division between philosophy and rhetoric is seens as an irreducible antagonism at the heart of language and the subject's experience of language itself. In my view, the tradition of rhetoric has things right in that it recognizes that the relevant equation isn't "subject-object" or "subject-world", but rather "subject-other-world". That is, in my view all the questions of philosophy are also questions of intersubjectivity and the subject itself is constituted intersubjectively or in the field of the Other. Once one begins with this premise, the tradition of rhetoric becomes indispensible as you rightly note.

January 09, 2007 4:39 PM  
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December 30, 2008 12:01 AM  

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