Friday, April 20, 2007

As if words have meanings intrinsically independent of their use and context

From a critical theoretic perspective, Weber’s position is pessimistic (not that this diagnosis would startle Weber…): it posits that meaning and identity formation requires a certain kind of statis in the surrounding social environment. The critical theoretic response would be to ask whether the problem is really the dynamism in our society - a feature that, as came out in the previous iteration of this discussion, we may not wish to sacrifice. Conventional sociology is willing, then, to naturalise this tradeoff - to say that living in a complex, dynamic, differentiated social environment necessarily carries as its cost a certain level of social and individual dysfunction - and that the only way to address the issue would, in effect, be to regress back to simpler times.
The critical theoretic question (I don’t believe there has yet been an attempt at critical theory that has managed to produce an adequate answer to this question) is whether the problem arises because of complexity, dynamism and difference per se - or whether the problem has arisen because of the specific kind of dynamism that perhaps exacts a heavier psychological or subjective toll on individuals attempting to navigate identity formation in our specific context. Critical theory asks whether we might perhaps understand the potentials for complexity, dynamism and difference as alienated possibilities - things that we can seize and preserve, in a transformed context.
This is related to the felt perception that something has collapsed - a perception that implicitly directs critique in a nostalgic or utopian (in the sense of positing unrealisable goals) direction - and I know that you are neither nostalgic nor utopian, but am just picking up on the implications of the language used, which is a very common language when such issues are discussed. The critical theoretic gamble would be that this experience of collapse points to something different than what it appears to refer to - that it does not arise from some sort of “natural” human preference for socialisation in a particular kind of (stable, undifferentiated, simple) social context, and that it does not reflect any actual experience of some earlier historical period in which identity formation took place in a better way. Instead, the argument would be that the experience of collapse is something like a misrecognised experience of potential - that our dynamic, differentiated, complex social world itself whispers to us that something else and something more is possible - that we dream dreams that have no place in transhistorical human nature, and that would not have arisen in the past, but are the dreams of the society we know we might have.
When Joe commented in the previous thread: I hope for a common project of sanity emerging from a common recognition of one’s own madness. A madness that lacks even the distinction of being individual, being one’s own possession.
I had wondered if perhaps he might have had something like this in mind: a collectively-shared “madness” - in the sense that we are together dreaming a counter-factual, dreaming something that is specifically not real - but that reflects a real potential. In this case, then reflecting on our shared madness would indeed be a common project of sanity. N Pepperell said this on April 18th, 2007 at 10:41 pm
An experience once articulated has theoretical content - and therefore assumptions and tacit or explicit frameworks, like any other theoretical content. This theoretical content then carries implications for the form of action someone believes might be possible, as a response to their experience.
So if, for example, someone articulates their experience in terms of a category like “collapse”, this suggests that there may have been a past period in which things had not yet collapsed - and that the appropriate action might be to try to recapture that time (romantic critique) or a resignation if they believe that time cannot be recaptured (pessimistic critique).
Conventional sociology falls into pessimism (this is why I quoted the Weber passage): it believes that, if we wish to retain a dynamic, diverse, complex social environment, then the loss of meaning is an inevitable corrollary. Critical theory tries to suggest that an alternative might be possible - that the loss of meaning may not relate to dynamism, or complexity, or diversity per se - but to the specific form in which such qualities have been achieved in our social context. This then suggests a potential target for political action directed toward the realisation of a different form of complex and dynamic society.
I’m therefore not at all questioning that many people experience a lack of purposiveness - nor am I trying to devalue this experience, suggest that it reflects some kind of “false consciousness”, or anything of this sort. I am simply asking why it might occur - and exploring a bit about the ways in which the articulation of an experience might opwn up or wall off possibilities for action.
When I emphasise that the notion of “collapse” is an interpretation or theoretisation of an experience, rather than the experience directly, I say this in part because most people would not claim to have personally experienced an alternative that has collapsed in their direct experience - the world in living memory would be difficult to articulate as characterised by a set law - the experiential issue would seem therefore to be lack, not loss - and the question would be why the one comes to be articulated as the other. I don’t believe this articulation is simply a perception, either - I don’t think it’s random or arbitrary articulation. I would like to explore, though, whether this non-random perception is fully adequate to the experience it attempts to articulate - or whether there might be other articulations that might open up better potentials for practice. Recognising the articulated or theoretical dimension of this expression is, I think, a necessary part of this kind of exploration - an element of trying to think about whether we can do justice to the validity of this experience, while still not falling into a pessimistic resignation that a dynamic, diverse, complex society condemns us to a loss of meaning.
I agree absolutely on the need to take seriously the toll of our form of complex society - this is one of the things that has always drawn me to Adorno, as I think, even with his many flaws, this is an issue that is always front and centre in his philosophy. Part of this toll, in his argument, is actually caused by the existence of the potentials that other theories may focus on in a one-sided way: our awareness that unnecessary sacrifices have been imposed generates enormous anxiety, fear - and rage. And this kind of analysis then makes the political space far more complex - I think you’re absolutely correct here - than many theoretical approaches seem to appreciate.
Apologies if something in my original approach sounded more “ideology critique” than I intended - I’m very tired, and it’s been a stressful couple of days - my expressions may not have been best chosen. I’m just trying to suggest that thinking these things together in their complexity - thinking the potential contingency of the experience of loss of meaning, while also recognising the genuineness and power of this experience, is essential to the development of non-pessimistic critique. N Pepperell said this on April 19th, 2007 at 4:53 am
I don’t really see the connotations of the term “collapse” that you’re citing. Tyrannical regimes collapse. The feudal system collapsed. Pointing this out doesn’t necessarily entail a romantic yearning to overcome this collapse. I believe the original post on insanity was already exploring these potentials you’re looking for, and I don’t see how anything I’ve said denies contingency. larvalsubjects said this on April 19th, 2007 at 2:59 pm
I’ve sketched three potential alternative theoretical positionings above: romantic, pessimistic, and critical. I’ve suggested that the articulation in terms of “collapse” can point in either romantic or pessimistic directions - but not in a critical one. Weber - with whom I directly associated your earlier post - is not romantic: he doesn’t desire to go back to anything. He does not portray our current moment, though, in glowing terms, or suggest that we can “adjust” to it in some fashion - it remains, experentially, an “iron cage”, in which we will continue to feel trapped. His is a fundamentally pessimistic position (and he would acknowledge this - much like Freud, he would hold that this is simply part of the intrinsic tragedy of rationalisation).
You may not hold a similar view at all: you may believe that our current situation is something to which we could adjust - that a negatively-articulated subjective experience is not intrinsic or inevitable. That the experience of meaninglessness is, like the collapse of a tyrannical regime, something that might provoke a momentary fear of what might replace it, but in which we will revel in the long run, as we realise the greater freedom that has resulted. In this case, you don’t need a critical theory per se, because you wouldn’t believe anything structurally needs to be transformed, and wouldn’t see the subjective experience of meaninglessness as a problem. I took you not to be meaning such things because there is a strong critical edge in each of your posts on this topic.
Or you may believe that something structurally does need to be changed - and that a different range of subjective experiences and objective possibilities would open up as a result. This would be a critical position. In this case, though, I’m suggesting that the category of “collapse”, as a way of expressing or diagnosing the target for political action, has drawbacks, as it more easily directs practice in nostalgic or pessimistic directions.
The categories of nostalgic, pessimistic, and critical are intended simply descriptively - it’s not more “cool” to hold a critical position, etc. There are areas, for example, where some critical approaches believe that elements of experience can be transformed, where I personally believe these elements are intrinsic - I would be “pessimistic” in relation to whether such things could be transformed, and I would argue that such theoretical positions are “utopian”, in the sense of trying to overcome something that cannot be overcome. You may believe - may be able to make a convincing case - that my own position on the issue of the loss of meaning is utopian in this sense.
I just tend to search for categories that make targets for action clearer, and that it make it a bit easier to grasp what we are trying to create - this is what I’m referring to, when I talk about the normative standpoint of a theoretical approach.
I’m not completely sure, though, that you want to be discussing the issue in these terms? Apologies if I have been imposing my own theoretical interests on the discussion. N Pepperell said this on April 19th, 2007 at 11:10 pm
I simply disagree with your discussion of the term “collapse”, as I can easily imagine someone saying “x has collapsed” and seeing that as ripe with possibilities for what you refer to as a critical approach. You seem to be attributing a lot of semantic richness to this term as if words have meanings intrinsically independent of their use and context. This use of collapse, for instance, is how Nietzsche takes the death of God, which he sees as ripe with potentials but also as a very dark event in other respects. At any rate, these weren’t the issues of the two original posts in question, which weren’t raising questions of “target for action”, or looking for solutions, or posing a problem. Both of those posts were discussing a state of mind that I’m finding myself in and weren’t casting about for solutions to that state of mind or critical potentials, or even raising social questions…
Except with regard to how I intersubjectively experience others. A good analytic stance is often a stance of passivity on the part of the analyst that sometimes simply allows things to develop themselves of their own accord without stepping in and trying to fix or solve. I’m certainly not up for such a discussion right now and am mostly thinking about tending my garden. Elsewhere I’ve discussed a number of the issues you’re raising here with regard to Zizek, Badiou, and Deleuze and Guattari and have little inclination to repeat those thoughts again here or defend them all over at this moment. I was genuinely interested in hearing Joseph expand more on his thoughts which struck me as extremely provocative yet also cryptic. Thanks for the clarification, though. larvalsubjects said this on April 19th, 2007 at 11:29 pm
Apologies for intruding. N Pepperell said this on April 20th, 2007 at 1:14 am

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