Freud / Brandom

November 20, 2010

In my early twenties, before I started blogging, I spent a lot of time trying to think about my own and others’ actions in terms of categories derived from psychoanalytic theory (i.e., basically, Freud). The principal analytic categories I was using at that time were libidinal circulation and cathexis. I was interested in, among other things, thinking about intersubjectivity and normative demands in terms of the ideas of libidinal investment and incorporation of the other into the internal dynamics of the psyche. The paradigmatic psychoanalytic emphasis, here, is on the internalisation of the demands of the parent(s), in the formation of the superego: love and the desire for love, which are taken as the basic motive forces of the psyche, can be used to account for the formation of internal demands – the creation of the self is also the differentiation of the self, as the first parental object of cathexis is separated into external and internal components, real separation from the other achieved by ideal internalisation. Now, I think psychoanalytic theory tends to place rather too much emphasis on the role of parents – and this connects to its naturalisation and transhistoricisation of a culturally specific mode of family organisation. But I found these categories helpful back then, and I still think Freud’s work contains a lot of insight, however problematic and silly it may also often be.

Nevertheless, I encountered an impasse, when I was trying to think things through in these terms. Retrospectively, I think that impasse had at least two aspects. First, the status of the categories of Freudian theory is always somewhat unclear: on the one hand, Freud has a strong desire to understand the psyche in naturalistic terms, and at least in principle to open his theories to the possibility of empirical or scientific refutation. On the other hand, the categories have a tendency to slide towards metaphysics – and various other psychoanalytic thinkers (e.g. Jung; Lacan) are happy to push that tendency as far as it will go. Further, Freudian theory has difficulty giving an adequate account of anything properly social (which includes the contingently-social elements of the family structures Freud analyses). Theorists who want to use Freudian categories to explain complex social phenomena (e.g. Adorno; Zizek) have typically done so – taking their cue from Freud himself, to be sure – by analysing societies as if they were analogous to individual psyches: a move guaranteed to result in idealism and incoherence, whatever the supposed rationale. I don’t think it’s unreasonable, looking back, for me to see my engagement with social/political theory, and the political radicalisation that followed pretty quickly from paying full attention to such issues, as among other things a response to the limitations of the Freudian theoretical apparatus – although there were, it’s true, plenty of other things going on in my life and head at that time as well.

Anyway, I now find myself back in something close to the psychological space I left off in moving away from this material more than five years ago – but, I think, with considerably more in the way of theoretical resources; more lived and understood; and a stable, happy, loving and rich affective background, where before all was anguish. I want to return to some of these issues, then – although in a personal, rather than a very theoretically rigorous way – and try to draw some connections between the work I was doing then and the work I’ve been doing more recently. In particular – and this will probably be no surprise, given recent enthusiasms – I’m interested in connecting the practice-theoretic foundation of Robert Brandom’s philosophical apparatus to the basic categories of Freud’s ‘discourse on desire’. Brandom and Freud, after all, are both theorists of explicitation – and they share this fundamental Enlightenment commitment (or ethical gamble, if you prefer) with the Marx of Capital. In a way, looking back, explicitation seems to me to be a thread running through almost all of the work – artistic as well as intellectual – that I’ve attempted in my life. The idea that the role of the artist/intellectual is to articulate in words, to a community, things that we already know in some sense, because we already do these things, but have never or rarely brought them to conscious reflection… and the idea that, through this act of making-conscious, we are enriched, as a community, and have an increased capacity for self-transformation (individual or collective)… this seems to me to be a useful way to understand the kinds of luxury production I’m interested in. (Of course, the ‘enrichment’ thus achieved need not be a positive enrichment – the community so ‘enriched’ may be a monstrous one; my remarks here are intended to be ethically neutral in that respect.) I’m not, of course, interested in such production here – these remarks have the goal of purely personal explicitation.

For both Brandom and Freud, we act without necessarily knowing why we act: we are driven by motive forces that are not necessarily part of our conscious thoughts – but we can, if we wish, aim to make explicit to ourselves the principles of action at work in our deeds, and, via this process of explicitation, reflect upon and transform them.

Brandom and Freud are also both interested in the construction of norms from our social behaviour: they both refuse to see norms as anything other than effects of our actions and interactions. I’m interested, in particular, in tracing out parallels between the two thinkers’ accounts of this process. Or, really, I’m interested in assembling my own understanding of how this process operates: I suppose that’s why I’m thinking of all this as, in the first place, a personal, rather than a theoretical, analysis. Brandom’s ‘rationalism’, with its emphasis on the social practice of asking for and giving reasons, and Freud’s ‘irrationalism’, with its emphasis on libidinal investment at the origin of normativity, seem to me to be describing fundamentally the same phenomenon. There is, however, I’m sure, some incompatibility between the two accounts. I want to establish my own sense – an accurate sense – of how these processes function. That may mean working through Brandom and Freud in a bit more detail – or it may mean (my preferred option), just trying to feel through to an articulation of this stuff based on knowledge and experience.

Personal Blogging

November 17, 2010

As I said a few posts back, I started blogging more than three years ago in a state of considerable turmoil and distress. In an early post I quoted Bellow’s Herzog, which captures something of the seething inner frenzy of thoughts and associations that the blog was meant to help articulate, externalise, and make available for reflection and action. In that department, blogging has succeeded pretty much beyond my wildest dreams: when I started blogging, I had at my intellectual disposal a mass of unsystematic autodidactic reading, much of it literary; an undergraduate degree in analytic philosophy; an intense engagement with a handful of intellectual figures (e.g. Derrida; Freud); an intense and justified rage; and a desire to master the discipline and subject-matter of economics, without an understanding of which it seemed impossible to comprehend the social forces that make and destroy our lives; or to understand what among the world’s abundant horrors can and should effectively be contested, and how.

Out of that work of articulation has come a settled and long-term intellectual research project, the value of which I am confident in, and do not feel the need to defend (though I am happy to). To recapitulate, I see the long-term project as consisting in the following stages (I’ve said all of this before, so the blockquoted section below can be skipped):

1) Social-theoretic foundations. I want to establish, to my own satisfaction, the social-theoretic basis on which the analysis of complex social and economic structures can rely. That’s another way of saying that I want at least a sketch of a solid, scientifically legitimate theory of practice. I also want a mastery of the core texts of the social-theoretic canon, such that I can participate with some authority in social-theoretic discursive communities. I also feel it would be valuable and, given my intellectual background, plausible, to aim to articulate the philosophical reasons for accepting a theory of practice as foundational, in the way I advocate: that is, to participate in philosophical discussions of the status of social practice, etc. This latter is not a particularly central goal of the project, though. I’d like to produce at least one document that gives an account of the positions I advocate in these areas – not to do so would, I think, be a waste of a lot of work. On the other hand, these social-theoretic foundations are foundations, rather than the finished thing I’m building, so I don’t want to get too hung up on articulating this stuff.

2) History of capitalism. I’ve already discussed this in an earlier post – basically I want to produce a very short, very rough-and-ready history of capitalist society from about 900AD (i.e. well pre-capitalist) to the present day.

3) Value theory. Again, I’ve discussed this briefly elsewhere – I want to make a systematic study of different traditions of economic theory, comparing and contrasting approaches to the theory of value between and across traditions. This will involve articulating the theory of value that I myself aim to defend.

Those are the three core initial stages of the project. There’s other stuff I need to cover too – e.g. I ought to read some anthropology as part of the social-theoretic reading; I need to acquire a mastery of the central mathematical tools used in modern econ. But this stuff can be slotted into the category of ‘general further studies’. Basically the above three sub-projects I think cover the core foundational elements of the larger endeavour.

Of necessity, subsequent work is at present less clearly planned in outline – I expect it in large part to be determined by the results of 1-3 above. I think I can, however, sketch at least the general intent, since the later work is, after, all, the principal purpose of the project. Once 1-3 above are largely complete, therefore, I expect to turn to:

4) A more detailed engagement with contemporary economic theory. Critique of positions I regard as flawed; articulation and defense of positions I regard as correct.

5) Analysis of contemporary events. This will presumably have two components:
a) more International Relations / world-systems type analytic work.
b) more immediate commentary on stuff in the news, etc.

6) Discussion of proposals for economic institutional reform. I regard this last as by some distance the most practically important of the goals listed here. Again, I’ve discussed this briefly before on the blog, but to recapitulate still more briefly: I regard the proposal and analysis of institutional alternatives as by far the most practically helpful contribution intellectuals as intellectuals can make to the general left project of transforming society for the better. Further, I regard it as a really important and essential contribution, and a task that I think the left in general should spend a lot more time on than presently it does. I’m sure I’ll write on this again in the future, and obviously I can’t discuss this rather fraught set of issues now in the detail they deserve – but basically, there are a number of key things that have often gone wrong, historically, with attempts at large-scale emancipatory transformation of society: a) hard power wielded by the ruling class crushing the attempt. b) popular movements pushing for right, rather than left, politics (this can be framed as a problem of organisational strategy, but it’s clear that anti-establishments movements aren’t intrinsically leftist.) c) radicals who gain power fucking up, policy-wise. It’s c) that interests me in this department. It seems to me that bad institutional choices have often been made by powerful groups with radical left intent, and that while there are a lot of reasons for this, one of the important ones is that the radical left hasn’t spent nearly enough time discussing what concrete institutions it wants to implement, if and when it gets the chance (and we’re in a particularly barren period, for this, historically, now, I think). What do we actually want, in concrete institutional terms, and why? There are, of course, answers to this question being put forward – I’m obviously not suggesting that there’s a blank slate here. I am saying that I want to be able to provide my own answers to this question, in some detail; and also that I want, if I can, to help foster and participate in a more far-reaching debate on the left around this issue than presently exists.

There’s of course a lot more that I’d like to write about all of this stuff, even in this kind of outline form, but I’m going to leave it all aside for now. The above is a sketch of what I understand my intellectual project to be. I think it’s a potentially valuable one, and it’s a project I’m committed to. It’s also, obviously, a fucking huge project. I don’t think it’s unrealistically huge, given my age, abilities, and the average predicted human life-span for those in my demographic. But clearly there’s a lot that could happen – a lot of different kinds of things that could happen – to prevent me from completing these tasks. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to me to have these goals: a roll of the dice at not unacceptable odds.

Having established all of that, I want to talk a bit about the personal (social) affiliations I think this project involves. To my mind I am, in attempting this project, affiliating with two separate, though overlapping, broad communities of practice and discourse: first, the scientific community, specifically the social-scientific community (and as I’ll say at greater length eventually, I regard the social sciences as, in principle, legitimately affiliated with the broader scientific community – I don’t regard sociology or economics as intrinsically pseudo- or non-scientific, although both disciplines have serious and non-accidental problems.) Second, the socialist/communist/Marxist political community. As I say, I regard these affiliations as to a very large extent distinct: the bulk of my project is social scientific, and I aim to legitimate the claims I’ll be making (about value theory, or the history of capitalism, for example) on social-scientific, rather than partisan political grounds. The bottom line is: a fact is a fact, whatever one’s politics. (Saying this doesn’t mean that I deny that struggles over what criteria to apply in determining what we accept as fact are political; and of course I feel free to make judgements about the material I’m studying that wouldn’t be shared by those who disagree with me politically. Again, I’ll expand on these distinctions at some later date.) At the same time, the social-scientific work I aim to be doing is of course informed by my political convictions: what research topics I consider worthwhile pursuing, what aspects of my topics I look into, etc. – all this is informed by the potential political use I see this social-scientific research as having, down the road. I see my commitment to norms associated with social science, and my commitment to norms associated with socialist / Marxist politics, as informing each other but as non-identical (though also as compatible). I also should say that these are non-homogeneous communities of discourse/practice, and that membership of them partly involves participation in the ongoing debate about their nature practised by those in and outside the communities themselves. I plan to explore all this stuff in future posts.

This is all well and good. The point is that as I’ve been blogging these last few years, I take myself to have developed a solidity of focus, and a confidence in the legitimacy of a potentially achievable complex long-term intellectual project. What started as a highly exploratory working-through of intellectual preoccupations has coalesced into a focused – albeit wide-ranging – set of tasks. I expect to continue working on these long-term tasks, and to regularly publish updates on my progress. It’s reasonably likely that I’ll try to publish some of this material in a formal setting (though I’m obviously also a big believer of blogging as a legitimate and valuable mode of publication).

However, this focus only applies to my sense of the tasks I’ve outlined above, and of the intellectual space this endeavour inhabits. Thinking about the tasks I’ve outlined above, as I go about them in my day to day life, I know that in attempting them, and even more in discussing my results, I am inhabiting a specific, and quite narrow, set of social roles. These roles are ones that I feel I’ve spent much of the last three plus years acquiring mastery of, and I’m happy with the level of mastery acquired. Nevertheless, these roles, and the complexes of practice they inhabit, only make up a fraction, albeit a significant fraction, of my life – and in many ways, now that the chaos of Herzogian internal association has diminished, at least with respect to intellectual matters, these roles do not represent the most significant and pressing aspects of my thinking to myself.

All these preliminary remarks are by way of saying that I’m thinking of making a significant shift in the content of the blog. I’ll still, as I say, publish material related to the vast ongoing project, some of it formal in nature. But I’m also going to start publishing a lot more personal material on the blog. I’m unclear at present exactly how this is going to work out: I don’t have a clear sense in my head of the form the future blog will take. I expect a lot of it will still be fairly abstract and ‘theoretical’, given that that’s often how I actually think. But to a large extent I’m going to turn this into a personal blog.

What does that mean? Well, given that the blog is published under my name, I’m obviously not going to be putting up anything that would cause serious problems with either the law or with the institutions that provide my income. (Not that there’s anything that I think would cause such problems; I’m just saying.) Likewise, I plan to respect the privacy of my family and friends in a fairly rigorous way, which is going to hugely limit, practically speaking, the amount of personal stuff I can blog about. Quite apart from personality issues, then, the blog is of practical necessity probably going to involve a lot of internal ‘reflections’. When I started blogging, the blog was highly ‘exploratory’. Basically I’m going to reboot to that kind of exploratory approach, w/r/t personal, rather than intellectual matters.

Now, although I’m not planning on being hugely revealing, w/r/t private lives of people I know etc, I’m assuming that the blog will aim to be quite personally exposing, in terms of things like the affects and thought processes and aspects of self made public. In terms of your readerly experience, the blog will quite likely become fairly tedious – others’ self-explorations are rarely engaging. While there’ll still of course be some philosophical and Marxian social-theoretic material, the blog’s content will be significantly shifting towards reflections on days’ events, on my own feelings and personality, etc. To be completely clear, there’s absolutely no chance that I’ll be offended if you de-blogroll the blog (for example), now that the nature of its content has changed. On the other hand, I’ve got zero sympathy with potential complaints that the blog is now too self-absorbed, that it assumes others will be interested in the minutiae of my life or thinking, etc. It’s entirely your choice whether you read the blog or not; if you are bored or irritated by its newly personal nature, don’t read it. I’ve created a ‘personal’ category, so you can tell what kind of content you’re likely to encounter in a given post, if you wish.

Most of the writing that’s gone up on my blogs so far has in some sense either inhabited or been oriented toward the social roles I discussed above. I’m going to try to step back from those roles, to a considerable extent. I suppose what I’m saying is that the blog up until now has been principally oriented to the discussion of intellectual content, whereas now the blog will also be more about me, the person who happens to be producing this content. This is, I think, what a lot of people use their intellectual blogs for already – so in that sense I’m just saying, again, that this is going to become a more personal blog.

At the same time, I’m not particularly interested in using the blog for socialising, etc. My plan is really to use the blog for a potentially slightly more exposing task: talking about the kinds of things, in personal and social life, that often can’t easily be articulated in more regular social or professional environments. Such difficulty of articulation is at least partly because of reputational risk – and reputational risk is obviously a large issue online. Nevertheless, the portability of online content – its relative lack of necessary connection to any specific discursive space – allows I think some possibilities of articulation that are foreclosed in the discourses of many smaller and more specifically grounded discursive communities. At any rate, I’d like, among other things, to explore here some things that are typically, I think, difficult to articulate in at least certain social spaces I’m familiar with.

I think this post basically covers my thinking about the transition to a more personal blog. Now to get on with it.

I’ve been reading Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia, and I’ve found his schematisation of different political ideologies in the third essay, Prospects of Scientific Politics, to be extremely helpful. Basically Mannheim categorises ideologies by their understanding of the relation between political practice and history. Here are his categories:

1. Bureaucratic conservatism

Reduces political problems to problems of administration, and thereby obscures the political construction and function of the socially specific organisational framework bureaucratic decision-making requires. Order is the highest political value; the organisation of a specific bureaucracy is equated with order in general; challenges to the bureaucratic framework are understood as deviations from order, and quashed.

2. Conservative historicism

Understands politics in terms of the dichotomy between deliberate planned construction (bad), and natural organic development (good). That which is not deliberately politically planned is understood and valued, romantically, as natural and organic. (Classic example: Burke.)

3. Liberal-democratic bourgeois thought

Sees public-sphere political debate as the medium by which the correct ends of politics can be a) decided upon and b) achieved. Democratically elected parliament is the enabling institution in which competing social interests can mediate their conflicts via debate. This can presumably come in a stronger form, oriented towards unified rational consensus, and a weaker form, oriented towards ongoing pluralistic negotiation.

4. The socialist-communist conception

Sees contests between conflicting political viewpoints and communal interests as unresolvable via public-sphere discourse. The appropriate sphere of political action is therefore not, or not just, parliamentary democracy, but also mass activism and organisation, ultimately oriented towards revolution. (Mannheim understands revolution as aimed at realising a rational organisation of society that cannot be achieved by rational persuasion.)

5. Fascism

The central concept of political action is the ungrounded or self-grounding deed; the central political actors are an elite of superior individuals. Those who are not members of the elite should be unconditionally subordinate to their elite leader(s). Unlike vanguardist communism, where revolutionary leaders are understood as channelling the will of the masses, in fascism the masses are understood as channelling / subordinate to the will of the leader. Political programmes are unimportant – what matters is self-realising action (of the elite).