June 14, 2008

N Pepperell Has Some Things To Say About The Emergence Of Modernity. [UPDATED]

Filed under: Blogroll, History, Politics, Science, Social Theory, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 11:22 am

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.

Question: Why?

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...]

February 29, 2008

Gavin Kennedy on Smith’s strategic use of ‘Providence’

Filed under: Economics, History — duncan @ 6:29 pm

Gavin Kennedy, of Adam Smith’s Lost Legacy, has put up a couple of posts responding to my post last year on the ‘invisible hand’.  Since Kennedy is a Smith scholar who knows almost everything there is to know about Smith’s work, and I’m incredibly not, I don’t have much in the way of response.  If you’re interested, however, his posts can be found here and here.  Also of interest is this related post, in which Kennedy connects Smith’s invocation of Providence to the political pressures of his time.  Perhaps I’ll return to this when I know what I’m talking about.

February 25, 2008

Wittgenstein at War

Filed under: History, Literature, Philosophy — duncan @ 9:19 pm

On the outbreak of the First World War, Wittgenstein was in Vienna. He was studying in England, and living in Norway (where he’d built himself a hut on a fjord – you can’t make this stuff up). But at the start of August 1914 he was back in Austria and, unable to get out, he decided to volunteer. Suicidal Wittgenstein felt that war would be the ultimate test of his character – his chance to prove himself to himself, to overcome his weakness and cowardice, and to live cheerfully in the face of death. He wanted to be sent to the front – which he was; he participated in the disastrous Galician campaign, and was lucky to survive. But because he was a trained engineer (before he became interested in philosophy, he studied aeronautical engineering in Manchester) he was then assigned to an artillery workshop in Krakow. As the Austrian forces chaotically retreated, outnumbered and outmanoeuvred, Wittgenstein read Tolstoy’s ‘Gospel in Brief’. He prayed that God release him from the misery of his surroundings.

“To bear life in the workshop, it seems, required no divine assistance. Apart from the fact that he had very little time to himself to work on philosophy, life was almost pleasant, at least by comparison with the previous four months. In any case, it was preferable to life in Vienna.” (Ray Monk, ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius’, p. 123). Vienna was where Wittgenstein’s family lived – and it was also the home of the fin de siecle culture he both admired and distrusted. Even when living in solitude in Norway, Wittgenstein had received Karl Kraus’s Die Fackel. There he read an article by Kraus about Der Brenner, an avant-garde literary journal, published in Innsbruck. Wittgenstein had returned to Austria in July because he wanted to meet Ludwig von Ficker, Der Brenner’s editor – they met on the very weekend of the ultimatum to Serbia. Wittgenstein had decided to give 100,000 crowns to Austrian artists without means, and he wanted Ficker to distribute it. One beneficiary would be Rilke – and Georg Trakl, a regular contributor to Der Brenner, also received a considerable sum. Wittgenstein’s comment on Trakl’s poems: “I do not understand them, but their tone makes me happy. It is the tone of pure genius.”

By August 1914 Trakl was also on the Eastern front. In September he participated in the battle of Groduk; and after the battle he suffered a complete mental breakdown. As the Austrian army headed back towards Krakow, Trakl was in a Krakow psychiatric hospital. He wrote to Wittgenstein: “I would be greatly obliged if you would do me the honour of paying me a visit… I will possibly be able to leave the hospital in the next few days to return to the field. Before a decision is reached, I would greatly like to speak with you.” Wittgenstein was delighted. He wrote in his diary: “How happy I would be to get to know him!” On the day he arrived in Krakow he wrote that he was “thrilled with the anticipation and hope of meeting Trakl.” “It is already too late to visit Trakl today.” Trakl committed suicide on November 3rd. Wittgenstein arrived at the hospital on the morning of November 6th. Monk: “’Wie traurig, wie traurig!!!’ (‘What unhappiness, what unhappiness!!!’) was all he [Wittgenstein] could find to say on the matter.” (p. 119). It was Wittgenstein who broke the news to Ficker; who in turn informed Trakl’s family.

Curse you, dark poisons,
White sleep!
This weirdest garden
Of trees wrapped in twilight
Filled with snakes, nocturnal moths,
Spiders, bats.
Stranger! Your lost shadow
In the sunset’s red,
A gloomy corsair
On the salt sea of misery.
White birds rise at the hem of night
Over collapsing cities
Of steel.

[The meme, from N. Pepperell:
1. Pick up the nearest book (of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.
Nominees: Flashboy, Comte, Roger, IT, Robert Vienneau.
(There’s no obligation to play the game…)]

February 9, 2008

The Genius of English Philosophy

Filed under: Economics, History, Philosophy — duncan @ 9:20 pm

George Unwin (1870-1925) was an economic historian at the University of Manchester. This is from his essay ‘The Philosophy of Value’:

“Locke and Adam Smith… were animated by a practical purpose – to justify and to forward the liberal movements of their respective generations…. Neither… was intent on building up a system of independent ideas all strictly deducible from some primary truth. To do so is not in accordance with the genius of English philosophy. To have made the freedom which they sought to justify appear to rest upon a merely reasonable basis would have probably seemed to them a doubtful service. That freedom derived its chief sanctity from facts, of which their minds were full. If the facts could be leavened with ideas, or if, to change the metaphor, the ideas could be found like plums within hailing distance of each other in the solid pudding of fact, the English philosopher would feel that the demands of logic were satisfied.”

October 20, 2007

The Corporation as Feudal Estate

Filed under: Economics, History, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 4:11 pm

One of the weirder aspects of laissez-faire economics is that its advocacy of individual liberty goes hand in hand with praise for the corporation. The state, we learn, can’t possibly look after individuals’ interests – because to do so would require an inefficient and corrupt command economy. Instead we must look to the market, and the interaction between consumers and corporations. Very few economists go on to mention that… the corporation is a command economy.

The corporation can at times resemble a state (as with the East India company – which wasn’t so much a state, as a state’s ruling class). More often it resembles a medieval manor, with its rigid hierachies, its idle owners of the productive resources, and its payment in kind, not cash. Yes, I know, we get our wages in money. But this is not really a market exchange. Rather, we work at producing cash (just as a medieval serf worked at producing grain) – then we receive some fraction of our product as our wage. For there is no market within a corporation. The corporation is a world to itself, based more on patronage and fealty than laissez faire supply and demand.

The movement from feudalism to capitalism went hand in hand with a change in the dominant modes of production (I’m sure I’ve heard this somewhere before…) Feudalism died as industry was born. The manorial estate was based on the pre-eminence of land: “no land without a lord, no lord without land.” When the link between land and productive resources was severed – when land ceased to be the dominant form of capital – the feudal estate went mobile, or virtual. The modern corporation has its lords and its serfs; but because its resources are diffuse or even incorporeal, this fundamental relationship of bondage is obscured.

October 8, 2007

Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia

Filed under: History, Literature — duncan @ 8:05 pm

I’ve been reading Clive James’s ‘Cultural Amnesia’ on and off for some time now. It’s a collection of biographical essays about mostly twentieth century cultural figures. It took me surprisingly long to figure out the obvious: it’s a bad book. I wanted to write a few quick remarks, and ended up sweating over this rambling post. There’s still almost everything wrong with what I say here; but my patience has run out. For a proper, better review you might want to check out the Millions, here.

Start with the book itself.


September 30, 2007

Slavery in ‘Empire’

Filed under: History, Vitiated by Ignorance — duncan @ 8:05 pm

I’ve been reading Niall Ferguson’s ‘Empire’.

“After the British first came to Sierra Leone in 1562 it did not take them long to become slave traders. In the subsequent two and a half centuries, as we have seen, more than three million Africans were shipped into bondage on British ships. But then, towards the end of the eighteenth century, something changed dramatically; it was almost as if a switch was flicked in the British psyche. Suddenly they started shipping slaves back to West Africa and setting them free… What was going on to turn Britain from the world’s leading enslaver to the world’s leading emancipator?” (p. 116)

Ferguson’s answer is religion: the rise of evangelicalism, and the new pressure-group politics that came with it. But what was behind this rise; and why did the evangelical project of liberation and conversion gain the dominance it did?

I don’t know! (See the ‘vitiated by ignorance’ tag). But I’ve just been reading Foucault; and through those spectacles this looks like a textbook move from physical coercion to social discipline and control. The British rejection of slavery only came once they (we) had gained dominance of the trade – and of the seas. It only came once the massive movements of population that were necessary to establish fledgling new world industries had been accomplished. The expansion of the British empire was driven not just by the need to expropriate ever more land, commodities and labour; it was also driven by the need to create new markets. The ‘Anglicisation’ of native populations can be seen as the systematic generation of demand. A slave cannot be a consumer. The evangelical goal is to generate the same or greater labour than a slave’s, in exchange for British products.

“In many ways, the model mission in Africa was the London Missionary Society’s Kuruman establishment in Bechuanaland, nearly 600 miles north-east of Cape Town… The essence of the Kuruman project was simple: in turning Africans into Christians, the mission was at the same time civilising them, changing not just their faith but also their mode of dress, hygiene, and housing… ‘The people are now dressed in British manufactures and make a very respectable appearance in the house of God.’” (p. 122).

Or, as Joseph Chamberlain told the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce in 1896:

”The Foreign Office and the Colonial Office are chiefly engaged in finding new markets and in defending old ones. The War Office and Admiralty are mostly occupied in preparation for the defence of these markets, and for the protection of our commerce… Therefore, it is not too much to say that commerce is the greatest of all political interests, and that Government deserves most the popular approval which does the most to increase our trade and to settle it on a firm foundation.” (p. 255).

September 25, 2007

Moments in the Cultural History of Soap

Filed under: History — Tags: , , , — duncan @ 6:29 pm

“The first step towards lightening

The White Man’s Burden

Is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness.

Pears’ Soap

Is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances while amongst the cultures of all nations it holds the highest place – it is the ideal toilet soap.” (Ferguson, ‘Empire’, p. 256)

Meanwhile, “Tissot believes that soap can be consumed directly, and that it will calm many nervous ailments; but more often it is sufficient to consume, first thing in the morning, by themselves or with bread, ‘soapy fruits’ – that is, cherries, strawberries, currants, figs, oranges, grapes, ripe pears, and ‘other fruits of this nature’. But there are cases where the difficulty is so serious, the obstruction so irreducible, that no soap can conquer it.” (Foucault, ‘Madness and Civilisation’, p. 157).

Googling ‘Social History of Soap’ brings up countless scholarly works – perhaps tens of thousands. According to this abstract,

“Late 19th century soap advertising relied upon four main ‘fetishes’: the soap, white clothing, mirrors, and monkeys.”

So much to read, and so little time…

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