Okay. I’ve been spending really quite a lot of time recently talking with N Pepperell (of the Rough Theory blog) about, you know, Marx and stuff. (Conclusion, at least on my end: ‘Capital’ = work of genius, but WTF with the Hegel already?) I’ve found it all just incredibly illuminating and enjoyable. But – I guess unsurprisingly – it turns out that only a fraction of NP’s ideas actually make their way onto Rough Theory. So I’m going to perform a dubious public service, by trying to summarise one of NP’s claims. I put up endless apologies and qualifications for almost everything I post here: the coin of the realm has been sadly debased. But let me especially stress: my attempted summary is going to make complete nonsense of NP’s ideas. My sneaky plan is to force NP to jump into the comments box below to correct me – and thereby elaborate this stuff in person. The provocation, then, is as follows…
At some historical point I’m more or less vague about [since, unlike NP, I’m not the sort of person who walks into copyright libraries and says ‘bring me everything you’ve got from the thirteenth century’ ;-)] something peculiar happened. You get the emergence of 1) the natural sciences; and 2) the social sciences. Now – the social sciences proper don’t turn up until, like, the nineteenth century. And we’re talking more like the seventeenth century here, I think. [This is completely embarrassing – I know nothing; nothing - but with courage and fortitude in the face of humiliation I persist…] NP’s claim is that you start getting the theorisation of society in a way that wouldn’t have made much sense to, say, the scholastic philosophers – a theorisation that would eventually become, thanks to further historical shifts I’m unclear about, the tradition on which the social sciences proper draw. (I guess we’re talking Hobbes, here, or something.) And at more or less the same historical moment (17th century ish, I think) you get the beginnings of an obsessive search for regularity in nature.
Well, I guess the standard answer – the answer I imbibed when studying A-level history (I got top marks folks! O yes…) – is the rise of the Enlightenment; the decline of arguments from authority; the death of dogmatism; the emergence of empiricism. When I was studying philosophy at uni, this stuff tended to be keyed to Descartes. Scepticism! The refusal to accept aught but personal judgement! The speech of the senses, not the dogma of the schools! It is, of course, a world-historical-class irony that Descartes’ sceptical method has become a canonical authority. An irony, indeed, that it was even communicated, if we take its actual claims seriously. But this is by the by. (I’m deep into personal preoccupations here; this has nothing to do with NP’s argument…)
Enlightenment not authority, yes? Fine. But this has some flaws, explanatory-power-wise. Because, first off, why the Enlightenment? And second off, why the emergence of the theorisation of society at around the same time? There’s no very obvious reason why natural science and the theorisation of society should go together, historically. And yet – apparently – they do.
NP’s answer: It’s about capitalism. Or, rather, it’s about the development of social structures that would make the emergence of capitalism possible. Specifically (I think): urbanisation; the movement from forms of communal organisation that are more or less personal in nature (small communities more predominant than large ones) to forms of communal organisation that require substantial mediation through impersonal structures if they are to function. Markets, I guess, in part – though NP more or less comes out in hives if you start reducing capitalism to markets. Plus more complicated things I’m in no position to gloss – stuff, I think, about the genealogy of the transformation of the concept of ‘value’ that NP’s been discussing in relation to Marx.
So – you get a reconfiguration of society. And this relates to the emergence of the category of the social. And this happens in a complex and interesting way. We’re getting to the actual content of NP’s claim now – which I’m more than a little nervous about fucking up. (It’s just inevitable.) But with the move to new and much more substantial forms of social mediation, you get a new form of sociality, which one could call (if one were in the mood ) impersonal sociality. NP has developed this idea in great detail in relation to Marx. (There NP calls it ‘real abstraction’). The point is that this is a form of sociality that can be decisively distinguished from any form of intersubjectivity. It is a form of sociality that need not be conscious; need not be meant. Now in a sense all forms of sociality possess this property, in spades. Any kind of interpersonal relation has countless features that are not present to the wakeful consciousness of the persons interrelating. (Freudian & Derridean that I am, I tend to think that such features of interpersonal relations are totally predominant; but let me stress again that I’m largely wittering on my own account here, not glossing NP). Nonetheless, with the emergence of large-scale, highly complex, highly mediated forms of social organisation, this attribute of sociality takes on a unprecedented power and prominence.
NP’s claim is that this new form of sociality is not theorised as sociality; not at the time, or for a long time after. On the contrary, this new form of sociality is theorised as natural. What is theorised as sociality is the intersubjectivity that suddenly becomes more accessible as a theoretical category because of its social differentiation from the ‘impersonally’ social. The new dominance of the impersonal social divides the social against itself. The social becomes: 1) the intersubjective (theorised as the new category of the social) and 2) the impersonally social (theorised as the natural).
And this social change is what produces the new categories of both the ‘social’ and the (law-like) ‘natural’. Intersubjectivity becomes available as an object of enquiry as never before – it becomes ‘relativised’ as social when it suddenly breaks away from a newly emergent other form of sociality. And at the same time, it becomes plausible to treat the ‘natural’ as organised on law-like principles, because the ‘impersonally’ social is being treated in this way. One could say that the impersonally social is naturalised and then projected onto the natural world (just as the political economists ‘naturalise’ the laws of political economy). But the claim isn’t that scientific endeavour is based on some misunderstanding or projection. The claim is just that people become familiar with the idea of treating a non-intersubjective, non-intentional ‘law’ as impacting their lives – because such ‘laws’ are produced by the new enacted mediations of the impersonal social realm. So it becomes intuitive to investigate nature itself for ‘natural’ laws… with all sorts of interesting results.
(There’s some connection, I guess, then, between what NP’s trying to do and the ‘strong program’ in sociology. The point is that even if we like some contingent historical project, we can’t use that as an explanation for its historical emergence. Regularities in nature themselves can’t provide an adequate explanation for the sudden desire to look for regularities in nature. Similarly, the real existence of ‘society’ can’t explain the emergence of this concept of society – a concept we can then reinscribe in our articulation of the concept’s emergence. When NP talks about ‘reflexivity’, the point is that we have to also give an account of the historical changes which produce the concepts we use to analyse those historical changes.)
Anyway – all this is no doubt a travesty of whatever NP actually thinks. So: let me end by quoting (as I like to) Wittgenstein – busy justifying the (as it turns out posthumous) publication of the ‘Philosophical Investigations’…
“Up to a short time ago I had really given up the idea of publishing my work in my lifetime. It used, indeed, to be revived from time to time: mainly because I was obliged to learn that my results (which I had communicated in lectures, typescripts and discussions), variously misunderstood, more or less mangled or watered down, were in circulation. This stung my vanity and I had difficulty in quieting it.”
I’m not planning to sting any vanity here. :-) But I hope these results, more or less mangled or watered down (and communicated in discussion) have some sort of provocative force. What’s the real deal, as regards this stuff, I wonder?
[So as I say in the comments below (and as I predicted in the post…) plenty of this misrepresents NP wildly. A few quick (attempted) corrections, then:
1) Not theorisation of society/nature. Rather, experience of society/nature.
2) Not just emphasis on natural law, but also an organicist vision of nature associated with romanticism.
3) A whole host of problems involving the characterisation of the ‘impersonally social’. Basically: the sort of things implied by the phrase ‘impersonally social’ (e.g. markets) are part of the intersubjectively social. The real ‘impersonally social’ (asocial social?) can’t be identified with institutions, but rather operates through them.
4) Strike the use of the phrase ‘real abstraction’ – which is relevant, but not like that.
Any better? Hum. Well I'm going to bed, anyway...]