Monday, February 28, 2022

Limits of Critique, Chapter 2


Summary of Chapter 2: Digging Down and Standing Back

In this chapter, Felski takes on the role of spatial metaphors in the practice and discourse of critique. she talks about the power of “metaphor clusters” and the advantages and disadvantages of using particular metaphors: “analogies can smooth or derail the path of thought” (53) [how do you “derail a path”?] She uses the metaphor of “fresh” vs. “stale” to describe the effect of promising new metaphors as opposed to established, constraining ones. “Figures of speech can become stubbornly entrenched and hard to budge, taking on a life of their own, dictating what and how we see.” [aka, wheels in the head]. She talks about how metaphors “choreograph” a text, influencing how a reader approaches and understands it. Her main intent in this chapter is to take on the two prominent metaphorical descriptions of critique, featured in the title. The first, “digging down” metaphor of uncovering is associated with Freudian and Marxist traditions; the second, “standing back” metaphor with post-structuralism and a recently influential issue of Representations.

A key text for the “digging down” metaphor is Jameson’s The Political Unconscious, which combined both Freudian and Marxist influences and popularized the “digging down” metaphor, along with Althusser’s concept of “symptomatic reading.” The presumption of such an approach is that the “manifest meaning” of a text is superficial or misleading, because there is a deeper, “latent” meaning, which reveals the true purpose or message of the text. For Freudians this is a “repressed” meaning. More broadly, “digging is an ethical and political imperative” on the part of the critic (58). She traces some of the history of this metaphor, from the influence of archaeological discoveries (such as Troy) on Freud’s use of the digging and discovering metaphor; to the emergence of a more sophisticated psychoanalytical approach, informed by semiotics, in the 1970s (Lacan, etc., are not named).

In exploring the productivity of this approach, she notes that when “gaps and fissures” in a text are discovered, this allows for an ambiguous reading, rather than mere hypercriticality and “suspicion” (63). “Admiration and love,” can coexist with, or form an essential motivation for, critique, and texts can be “rescued” from the “shame of the sheerly ideological” by noting how they struggle with or challenge ideology rather than merely replicating it. She notes Jameson’s “stout defense” of the “positive hermeneutic” aspect of Marxist critique (64): that this is not merely, or even primarily, about tearing down, and that leftist critique in fact has utopian elements and inspirations. She then somewhat weakly criticizes Jameson’s point, by calling such utopianism an “endemic suspicion of the present,” in which “all hopes are pinned on a world beyond this world.” She backs this up with a note citing Latour’s “compositionist manifesto.” Similarly, she notes the nuance of George Steiner’s “fourfold structure of interpretation,” only to conclude that “this double-sidedness disappears, however, once dialogue gives way to a diagnosis of symptoms.” That is, the specific form or practice of “symptomatic reading,” (a subcategory of this broader metaphor which she has traced over a century) is taken as more significant than all the ambiguity and complexity that advocates of “digging” critique speak about. It’s like she has to recognize that they talk about and praise ambiguity, but then take it away from them, because it will be part of “post-critique,” and thus be denied as an inherent or essential aspect of “critique.”

Part of her criticism could be understood as a call for a “flat ontology” or a “flat reading” (though she uses neither of these terms, nor the “flat” metaphor, which is part of the “surface” metaphor she will be critiquing next). In such a reading, “ideology” or the “political unconscious” are [spooks,] and don’t really exist out in some imagined underworld or overarching space; instead they are “housed in the scribbled notes, computer files, and footnotes of the critic’s own workspace” (66). This is a riff on Latour’s criticism of Levi-Strauss’s “unconscious structures of primitive myths,” (202n23), as existing not in Africa or Brazil but in the filing cards in Levi-Strauss’s office, or more specifically, in the assemblage of human and non-human actants that has composed or created or established them, or whatever word Latour wants to use [though isn’t it fair to ask, does not “Levi-Strauss’s office,” itself, exist in Latour’s files and folders, etc.?]. Felski follows this with one of the first of three or four short paragraphs (scattered through the chapter) in which she outlines her own vision of how texts should be read. She cites Ricoeur re: a “surplus of meaning,” which any text overflows with, and which is more than any one reader or critic could capture or interpret. “There is no need to resort to repression, in other words, to account for contradiction, nuance, or implicit meaning” (66). [here we are at the boundary between the opening and closing sides of post-critique: does the above “no need” imply that the search for “repression” should cease? Or that it should simply not be mandatory or dominant, and that it can co-exist with other approaches and styles? After all, sometimes, repression happens, however that term is to be understood].

It seems her argument is really with “symptomatic reading,” and its need to posit symptoms which are themselves the result of a repression of the latent meaning, in the service of some kind of ideological unity or orthodoxy. Althusser and Jameson seem fitting targets of such a critique. However, it is less clear that this criticism accurately fits all of the variety of approaches which use the “digging” metaphor, and she seems to be taking this as a kind of ideal form which the rest must be seen as somehow trending to – perhaps “unwittingly?” She ends the section on digging with a reference to criticisms that arose from within, and a move toward a more nuanced and open form of reading by Macherey and others. She notes the rehabilitation of Freud as the “French Freud,” who was not simply a believer in the scientific veracity of his own theories, but one who was always testing the limits of the knowable: Freud was thus rehabilitated “by applying essentially the same techniques that had been used to ‘save’ canonical works of art” (68). She notes: “it was assimilated, in other words, into an influential style of thinking, that views irresolution, contradiction, and doubleness as the quintessential intellectual virtues” (69). This invocation of a late-20th century academic form of metis leads to the emergence of the next, competing critical metaphor of surfaces and “standing back.”

However, the second “metaphor cluster” she has identified ends being a bit more mixed: “surface,” “standing back” at a distance, and so on. Instead of keeping the “standing back” emphasis from the chapter title, she names this section, “Against Nature,” emphasizing a different key aspect of this form of critique, which is denaturalization [although this whole concept of “second nature” seems also key to many of the Marxist critics who fit better with the first trend]. Typical of her argument here are statements like: “The right to rail against social injustice, reinterpret images, or take issue with badly made arguments is not in dispute, but it is less evident that such rebuttals need to be framed as excoriations of nature” (71). Not to jump ahead too far, there is just so much conflation going on in that sentence: for instance, the implications that to criticize naturalization per se means also to insist that “such rebuttals need” to take that specific form; and also that accounts of “second nature” and “denaturalization” are “excoriations of nature.” WTF?

She traces this “excoriation of nature” through various precursors, such as the 19th century dandies of the aestheticism movement, a la Baudelaire, etc. In a reaction against the idealization of nature in Romanticism, the aestheticists celebrated artificiality and feared or derided “nature” as the “realm of the automatic and unthinking.” Another trend is that of Russian Formalism and their practice of ostranenie, or “strangemaking.” (Phenomenology’s suspicion of the “natural attitude” is added as another precursor a few pages on (73)). “Denaturalize” and “defamiliarize” become synonyms (72). The point of defamiliarization/denaturalization is to reveal that what we consider to be “natural” is in fact a product of culture. “Modern ‘culture,’ in a paradoxical reversal of the usual distinction, thus enforces the metaphorical sway of ‘nature,’ as second nature.” The “paradoxical reversal” she seems to be referencing here, is the fact that “nature” is culturally (ahem) a much stronger and more privileged term than “culture;” this form of criticism reverses that to undermine the power of exactly this privileging of “nature” and of naturalizing categories, etc. It is interesting that (and all the moreso given her frequent references to Latour) she does not mention the cultural (ahem) and institutional dominance of the “hard sciences” and of biological and “natural” explanations in the US, which is in fact the source of the “cultural and social explanations are belittling” theme she has copied over from Latour (and seeks to deploy uncritically, if it is fair to use that word). She has of course signalled in the previous chapters that she will argue against the claim of critique to be oppositional; she may of course be correct about this within specific discourses but on the broader field, it certainly remains a counterhegemonic discourse – and it seems a bit naive or willful to ignore this fact, quite evident to, for instance, an instructor of introductory anthropology and sociology courses. She will, later in the chapter, claim that “critique” is elitist and academic, and cultivates an alienating language and stance which distance it from the everyday language of everyday people; be that as it may, this very insistence on “critique” as a dominant discourse, seems clearly confined by a perspective limited to the ivory tower, and only certain parts of it, at that. And certainly not the best funded or influential parts!

She lists three kinds or aspects of “nature” which come under the glare of critique: human nature, inner nature, second nature. She repeats this theme often throughout the rest of the chapter, and the question arises as to whether she really wants to rehabilitate the concept of “nature” (untouched or excused from these criticisms), and to what end? One guess is that this is a form of post-humanist argument, that our way of talking and being suspicious of “nature” limits our connections and “alignments” or whatever with non-humans and the natural world more generally. However, this has not been specifically stated here. Another question that arises here is what role such rearticulations of words and concepts like “critique” and “nature” as here proposed, play in a potential contemporary rearticulation of the position of academics, the university, and so on in these early decades of the 21st century. Felski (paralleling and echoing the more pointed account in Bookchin, as I was reading recently) outlines the growth of “critique” as an academic practice, corresponding to the era of the acceptance of (tame variants of) Marxism into the academy from the 60s through the 80s. Bookchin’s reading seems to see these radical intellectuals/academics (he was himself one after all) as part of a class fraction (or what have you) involved in a link or alliance with the working class (and later on, with progressive movements challenging racial, gender, and heteronormative hierarchies). The academic practices of “critique” and “denaturalization” Felski is critiquing emerged in this era, and thus served the interests of this class or group, (or class fraction, I don’t really know the Marxist terminology). [Felski herself does not mention any kind of class or group analysis of this sort, though she does make a passing reference to “elective affinity;” perhaps she is saving this topic for chapter 4, on politics]. In any event, some have argued that we are currently in the midst of a new rearticulation to fit new changing circumstances: old words and concepts are being updated to meet the new needs of the time. This is the critique outlined, for instance, by Michel Bauwens of the “woke ideology” (or the coherent and interesting parts of that critique, anyway). A word like “critique” from this view, is done away with to make way for new terminology: a fresh start and a shorter citation pattern (we all just talk about “matters of concern” now, and cite Latour instead of Foucault or Butler, or Gramsci). But a new rehabilitation of “nature” seems to put a lot more at stake. Later in this chapter Felski recounts, critically, the attempts by Butler and others to stave off naturalizing categories and the collapse of their form of critique into “orthodoxy;” she again will dismiss this as “not necessary.” But the other (suspicious, yes) side of the question is what is gained by academics (or a group or faction thereof) becoming newly re-enabled to talk about “nature” and the “nature” of things? In the context, of course, of a university and culture that have privileged nature and naturalizing categories all along, all the moreso as the university becomes increasingly streamlined into a productive, corporate-aligned business model.

She turns next to the topic of antinaturalism as style and tone, starting off with a surprisingly inaccurate reading of Foucault’s style as “famously impassive,” “purged of obvious signs of affect and attachment,” “cool rather than hot” (74). Though it is fair that Foucault is “scrupulously nonjudgmental,” this is all part of his ironic detachment, which is, far from lacking in affect, above all playful and often maddeningly so. In a footnote she slightly qualifies this with a recognition that there is “another side” to Foucault, but overall it is surprising that a writer like Felski, so attuned to nuance and style, would short-change one of the foremost proponents and practitioners of the gay science.

She turns then to Roland Barthes, and describes the great influence of his Mythologies: followed with his own dissatisfaction at how orthodox and common the method he used had become by the 1970s; his response was to “move away from critique” (75; in Felski’s words), to experiment with more diverse and playful styles of reading and writing. (It is of course Felski’s circumscribed usage of “critique” that limits the word to Barthes’ earlier, but not his later, texts, nor indeed to his own critique of his earlier style).

She notes that this “ironic consciousness” was often linked to political and radical activism, and that an “elective affinity” was forged between “French theory” and “a vanguard of queer theorists, feminists, and postcolonial scholars (76). This group is/was particularly critical of naturalizing language and the use of it by social movements: they used the ironic detachment and corrosive unending critique of the “stand back” variety to evade cooptation. This led them to question or oppose the use of any received, naturalizing, or essentialist language, like “identity,” appeals to the biological reality of “woman,” etc. (and is not Felski herself carrying this forward a step by critiquing the received value of “critique?”) Felski quotes Lee Edelman: “critical negativity, lacking a self-identity, can never become an orthodoxy.” This idea of critique, or a radical practice of critique, as immune to cooptation, and specially so, is one of the key arguments Felski is determined to refute. Here, she takes Edelman’s claim to task from “the perspective of actor-network theory,” by pointing out that “critical negativity” in fact has numerous “identities:” “as a material and physical object, a contribution to a tenure file, a reckoning with one’s scholarly rivals, a means of working through a midlife crisis,” and so on. Other than the fact that “identity” seems to be being used in different sense by Edelman and Felski, this appeal to context (always situate?) is of course reasonable but seems to too-confidently insist that a corrosive critique, or an attempt at hewing to anti-naturalizing or anti-essentializing discourse, can have no effect whatsoever and is nothing but a pipe dream. The ultimate question is about the power and possibilities of articulation which such concepts and uses of language have – and situating/contextualizing them does problematize them further but not in a way that actually discredits such language, but rather, that renders it really more important to be understood fully, imho. (And it seems likely that Felski will return to this as her point: she is not anti-critique, but postcritique, after the manner of the “postmodern” or the “post-structural”; however, her polemical language and rhetorical stance (of disabling by explaining) makes her come across as a bit blunter, and indeed I suspect she is moving (“unwittingly” or not) between both positions).

She continues her discussion of postcolonial readings informed by the “stand back” tradition; the idea that texts and their authors “unwittingly” reproduce colonial ideology “is key” (77). “The set of socially constructed phenomena becomes an ever-expanding field that subsumes every conceivable object and practice.” This latter is a silly-sounding statement – the very premise of cultural anthropology and several related disciplines is that “socially constructed phenomena” are what we have to work with, and it is better to realize and study that, than otherwise – by this light, the perception that socially constructed phenomena is “an ever-expanding field” is reminiscent of the conservative who complains that gay and transgender people have suddenly been brought into existence by political activists. There is, of course, a sense in which, per the usage of ANT, this is true; and in fact the point Felski is making is, ironically, that the concept of “socially constructed phenomena” is itself a socially constructed phenomenon, a product of a specific, situated, assemblage of humans and non-humans, etc. But we get again here to the problem of just where Levi-Strauss’s office is (see above); and there is an extent to which both Latour and Felski, having marshalled the endlessness of critique to embark upon a critique of critique, want to suddenly cut off this endless process at a convenient or useful point – which is, itself, quite reasonable as a pragmatic and productive move, but which imho is less felicitous when it appears to be made into a basis for a moralizing argument against other ways of talking about the social and so on, and of using critique.

Here, she again refers to the argument that to explain something as socially or culturally constructed is to “reduce it to dust” (paraphrased from her words, which derive from Latour’s). She cites Latour’s discussion from Reassembling the Social where he is moving away from the terminology of “social construction” because other sociologists misunderstand it – specifically, he and the other ANT thinkers having shown that science is socially constructed, other sociologists congratulate them for showing science to be all “hogwash” or words to that effect. (Scientists, in turn, are also indignant over this idea). Latour and his friends are initially (and correctly) surprised that other sociologists misunderstand the concept and accord so little status to products of social construction, even though these are the things they themselves study. The problem with this passage is it is wholly a straw man argument – no one is named or quoted to this effect – very typical of Latour (though not of Felski, who gives direct quotes from real people and texts when she wants to give examples of discourse). And then these people who clearly misunderstand sociology and the concept of social construction, are taken as exemplars of sociology and social construction, and the reason these concepts have to be moved beyond. This slippery slope argument used by Latour is then adopted by Felski but used as a tool – by explaining the rhetorical and socially situated character of critique as a practice and as a set of metaphors, she seems to believe she is degrading it – but that does not follow, at all, because of course everything is socially constructed.

She turns then to Butler as an exemplar of “fin-de-siècle critical theory” (78), trying to avoid essentializing language and the trap of identity. I think in reality the more important metaphor or sense of critique here, which Felski has not identified as such, so far as I can tell, is not its “superficialness” as opposed to depth (that was a convenient organizing opposition of her own, but it does not live up to the needs of the chapter overall), but its endlessness and corrosiveness or mobility, its resistance to fixed endings and conclusions. And yet how Felski responds to Butler is also to emphasize the undendingness of discourse: she points out that when people accept or claim identities (which Butler is resisting) they are practicing what I would call (after Spivak) “strategic essentialism;” not as final or enduring states but as temporary ones: “they speak, they hesitate, and they speak again” (79). Such essentializing can be used to police and control, but it is not always used for this purpose or this effect. “It is not that questions of power are irrelevant to such speech acts but that the writer must clarify their relevance by attending to specific cases.” [Always contextualize?] None of these very apt observations seem to be much of a criticism of Butler’s point about language, however. It seems that in Felski’s situated view, aspects like citationality and the entailments of articulation are simply being ignored. Of course, for instance, a strategic essentialism that makes an appeal to a concept of enduring identity, reproduces that concept and keeps it alive and relevant. Merely to point out that discourse is situated and agonistic, etc. does not obviate that point about overall and long-term effects. It is all about articulation, and Latour and Felski, in debating the uses of language and concepts, are playing the same game. She does cite Toril Moi making an observation Volosinov would approve of: “It is impossible to theorize power in language in advance of any utterance.... You need to understand who says what to whom, for what purpose, under what circumstances.” Yet again, Volosinov’s target was actual functionalists and structuralists, it is hard to see how such a criticism applied to Butler cannot but depend on a reductive understanding of what they are saying and doing.

Nearing the end of this section, she makes the claim that the style of antinaturalism creates “a forbiddingly high wall between ordinary language and the language of critique” (80). A fair point but one fitting more for the academy in general than any particular school within it – one could argue that much of what ANT does is construct new terminology to replace the old, thus creating new in-groups who know the right language to use (e.g., “matters of concern,” “attachments,” and so on). She reiterates her critique of the critique of naturalism and the “taken for granted:”

It is one thing to point out that certain ideas are bad and also taken for granted. It is another to conclude that they are bad because they are taken for granted—in other words, that anything taken for granted is an agent of domination.

Two thoughts here: 1) part of the most successful aspect of her critique of critique so far, is precisely how she has pointed out that certain aspects of it (such as its special radical or moral character) are in fact taken for granted, and that this is bad! And even allows for domination to creep in! 2) again, what she is specifically targetting in this paragraph is the idea of nature, and it seems a rearticulation is being called for – and what rearticulation of “nature” and of “the natural” is being made possible, and for whom, and for what interests could an “elective affinity” be found, in the present and near future?

She ends with the observation that all forms of thinking and language rely on unanalyzed “black boxes” and here we see perhaps, a more important critique – a reference to the limits of critique promised by the book’s title. “In short, critique overestimates [aka, “takes for granted?”] the transcendent force of its own self-consciousness and the extent to which it can liberate itself from convention” (81). [Mind you, what was identified a few pages ago as “fin-de-siècle critical theory” is now equated with all of “critique.”] She equates this with “the old dream of philosophical transcendence, the view from nowhere,” – what she earlier referred to as the “suspended animation” of the philosopher (76) – and this is a ridiculous thing to say, given the political attachments of many of the people she is criticizing, and the arguably disabling attack she herself is making on their attempts at avoiding essentialism, etc. – and to what end? Is she not the one who will be left in “suspended animation” via her critique of all the attachments and black box assumptions of critique as a radical practice?

In the concluding section, she summarizes, “we have considered two variants of critique, hermeneutics versus genealogy, depth versus surface, the pursuit of truth versus the interrogation of nature.” Once again, slippages abound – two common sets of metaphors used to describe critique have somehow become two “variants of critique,” not to mention the fact that she has in fact identified quite a range of metaphors, which don’t seem to neatly fall into the two categories that she keeps insisting on. And of course, it is weird to call arguments against naturalization “the interrogation of nature,” for so many reasons, but most simply, because its advocates don’t believe that what they are interrogating is in fact “nature.” She discusses Foucault’s theory of power and how it differs from Marxian and Freudian depth-seeking, and cites Dreyfuss and Rabinow on the claim that Foucault’s work escapes the charge of being a “hermeneutics of suspicion” (82). She goes back to her move, in the previous chapter of (quite reasonably, imho) expanding on the use of the word “hermeneutics” to include what Foucault is also doing, as “second-order hermeneutics” (83). (And thus the opposition between “digging down” and “standing back” “variants” of critique, has now become an opposition or rather historical and methodological relation, between “strong” (aka first-order) and second-order hermeneutics). Here I should expect some recognition of the similarity in moves: Foucault criticized “hermeneutics” and tried to create new methods (e.g., “genealogy”) that move beyond it; isn’t this what Felski is also doing with “critique?” And in both cases it is a fair question to what extent the words they have chosen to describe what they are critiquing are accurate or even reasonable fits. She ends with a call for a text to be seen as a “phenomenon to be engaged” and “a potential source of knowledge rather than just an object of knowledge;” and for reading as “a cocreation between actors that leaves neither party unchanged” (84). To me, this comes across as a reasonable, though not particularly shocking or surprising call – for what we could call a third-order hermeneutics?

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Limits of Critique, Chapter 1


Summary of Chapter 1: The Stakes of Suspicion

Felski introduces her critique of critique and the idea of critique as “mood.” One of the repeating questions which I come back to in reading this is, to what extent is “critique” the best word for what she is criticizing? There are certainly strengths and weaknesses: one of the strengths is what could be called the “blackmail of critique,” in which critique is presented as the only oppositional view and everything else is just unthinking and uncritical; while at the same time, critique (or at any rate suspicion) is widespread institutionally in the service of order (as police, detectives, etc.). The immediately obvious benefits of her argument are those in which she situates “critique” as an institutionalized practice, an imagined community, an overarching modernist narrative, and so on.

She emphasizes the connection of critique with de- prefixes rather than re- prefixes: “demystify, destabilize, denaturalize” rather than “recontextualize, reconfigure, or recharge” (17). My response here is, besides noting the de/re link to D&G, that isn’t this just to repeat the claim that critique must be part of a praxis to be useful? Here, as in Latour, the assumption that critique is first and foremost an academic practice becomes limiting.

One accusation of the use of critique that she returns to is the point that “accounting for the social causes of something serves as a means of downgrading it” (23). This is true rhetorically – and above all culturally – but only under certain conditions of articulation (my notes here refer to the ritual/ritual split, and to the effects of the Aristotelian cause/category trick (which she refers to (without using that name), and the Latourian question of delegation in an assemblage (which she does not refer to). This idea that explanation or contextualization is dismissive needs to be resisted, not accepted as somehow inevitable or acceptable. She demonstrates the peril of this almost immediately with a imho poorly thought out point of terminology, that “critique does not produce persons but must seduce persons” as part of a paragraph criticizing the “unfortunate locutions” of social constructionism. Intentionally or not, in doing so she has aligned herself with a realist view of the subject, and thus falling directly into the [culturally far more dominant] natural vs. social opposition in which “nature” is the preferred term, and “social” is seen as ephemeral or secondary (this is why social explanations render things unimportant while natural ones solidify their importance).

And in relation to this ephemerality of the social as against naturalized categories (she promises a critique of “denaturalization” later), she consistently makes spook-like references to critique as “spirit” etc.: e.g., “Suspicious interpretation, we could say, ‘takes on a life of its own’...” (23), or as “spirit of disenchantment” (32).

Again, she discusses (more convincingly) the aspects of critique as mood and as ethos (in the rhetorical sense: convincing by character). She talks about critique as [disciplinary] “self-problematization” and the allure of theory in the 80s and 90s. Part of this was about learning a mood and demeanor, part was the creation of a community, attachments etc. None of this, however, is particularly damning, unless “critique” is defined very narrowly as a mood or approach which could never admit or accept this side of itself. She in fact notes the positives of this, but then proceeds as if situating or contextualizing the practice did indeed degrade it – this may be the most significant problem with her approach.

One interesting issue is that she (and others) adopt the term “hermeneutics of suspicion” from Ricoeur for their critique of critique, but Ricoeur meant this much more positively. There is thus a discussion on what Ricoeur meant by it and the positive sides of critique which he saw (which include problematizing the self, the “complacency of consciousness” (31)). Opposed to this is a “hermeneutics of restoration” which looks to a text for inspiration or wonder, joy., i.e., “uncritically.” Felski says the difference between these two is the difference “between unveiling and unmasking” – a distinction which I completely cannot follow. These are both forms of decipherment/uncovering (aletheia) but she does not expand further to show how they are different, or for that matter, which is which.

Interestingly, she embarks on a lengthy – and to my mind, quite reasonable – defense of “hermeneutics” (and more broadly, “interpretation”) as a term against the slanders of Foucauldians, Derrideans, and everyone who has pigeonholed the word into the revelatory insights of a priestly caste (my terms there). “If we conceive of interpretation as a retrieval of non-obvious or counterintuitive meaning” then it is obviously much more widespread and important and thus not to be dismissed (33). This immediately begs the question as to why “critique” is to be slandered in exactly the way she complains that “hermeneutics” has been. A lot of the implicit force of her argument – the mood perhaps I should say – has to do with implied but to me murky differences between “critique” vs. “interpretation,” “explanation” vs. “understanding,” and so on. Anyway she spells out that practices of critique are kinds of interpretation and so should not be so hostile to hermeneutics, but then states that in her conclusion she will draw on hermeneutics as an alternative to critique. My feeling is that instead of using any of these words in these vague ways, qualified terms should be introduced: e.g., “suchandsuchy critique,” or “so-and-so interpretation.” Of course she will not because 1) she has already criticized the “critique of critique” whereby a certain practice of critique is identified as “bad critique”, thus salvaging the category of critique itself (as in Debord’s “spectacular critique”); and 2) simply, she has chosen to take on the concept or at least the word critique wholesale, either for the glamour of slaying so powerful a dragon, or, more empathetically, for the value of achieving independence from such a wheel-in-the-head. She ends her “rebranding” of hermeneutics with a reference to Ricoeur insisting that hermeneutics is about “exposing ourselves to a text as well as imposing ourselves on a text;” this is immediately reminiscent of Benjamin’s modern hero (as opposed to the flaneur or panoramicist), and of course to the practice of critique as understood at SUVA.

She then spends several pages on the concept of “suspicion,” explaining in particular how and why she uses this term instead of Sedgwick’s more judgmental “paranoia,” or the more favorable “skepticism.” IMHO there are interesting points made regarding suspicion as mood, but much of what this term allows is an over-generalization of the criticism of critique, to any “suspicious” practice. Her primary text on this is a mid-20th century psychologist Shand, who comes across as a classist twit (and his problematic over-spread, and reification, of “suspicion” she adopts as her own).

Part of her critique is a temporal one, regarding expanding suspicion in modernism and post-modernism, in which context academic critique is simply no longer as special or different as it imagines itself to be. She details four “strands” of the “prehistory of suspicion” that continue to have effects today (she appears to be obliquely referencing, but not using, the Foucauldian concept of “genealogy): 1. philosophical suspicion; 2. literary suspicion; 3. vernacular suspicion; and 4. professional suspicion.

The philosophical is of course the obvious one and that which Ricoeur had been referring to, and in fact overemphasizing. Literary suspicion is about the practice of writing and reading modernist texts, having to do with the suspicious practice, and reaction to, modernity, a “suspicious sensibility” (43).

“Vernacular” suspicion is what I would have called “political” and it is interesting how the word choice degrades it a bit, as if “well let us pause to recognize what goes on outside the ivory tower.” Her treatment of this is far better than Latour’s, though still unsatisfying. She points out the “weapons of the weak” and suspicion as a practice by the oppressed, exploited, etc.; and that sometimes this emerges into what we could call a critique (citing Laclau and Mouffe: “a state of subordination is transformed into a state of antagonism” (44)). This extra-academic practice of critique is used by academics as a support for their special claims of their own practice of critique as an inherently oppositional force. Felski counters that “vernacular suspicion is promiscuous rather than partisan” (45), echoing Latour’s invocation of conspiracy theories. And indeed this is an important point to take note of in this “post-truth” moment. She later asserts (citing Christian Thorne): “forms of skepticism or antifoundationalism have no inherent or necessary political effects” (51) – a significant response to Stirner, yet one still wonders just what meaning “political effects” has in this context: that is, how it is articulated/reterritorialized. She promises to return to this in chapter 4: my questions here would have to do with the politics of articulation, of which the “political effects” she cites (rightist “skeptics” for example as opposed to progressive causes, etc.) are a secondary articulation (into our existing political system). (Leaving aside the question of whether people who believe in conspiracy theories are being “skeptical” or “credulous”).

Finally, professional suspicion, she points out, is separated by class from the former, undermining its ability to lay claim to vernacular suspicion as a founding and righteous predecessor or inspiration. (Though she notes the idea of academics etc. as “knowledge workers” in a “New Class”, I would raise the issue of intellectuals as lumpen, and also question to what degree so-called “knowledge work” can be usefully and non-problematically separated out from other forms of “work”). She makes an important point, that professional suspicion is not just academic but suffused throughout the subjects who operate the state, most classically the detective, but also police, bureaucrats, experts and professionals more generally; I would add scientists (she does not). “Suspicion” in this sense becomes again part of modernity more generally, and in the service of power rather than opposed to it. On the other hand, this has been a sleight of hand – replacing “critique” with “suspicion” as if they are the same – and the figure of the detective who is professionally suspicious, but who through some experience develops a critique (and thus ends up betraying his bosses, etc.) immediately arises. I would hope that she would engage with Foucault’s notion of critique as ethic, because here the subjectifying call to be critical could be tied into the reproduction of power systems in an ambiguous way. In contrast, her insistence on submerging critique into the broader category of “suspicion” is more rhetorical and does not seem to produce much beyond a Latourian-style closing off of critique as terminology. She takes aim at “Foucauldian critics” who themselves have tried to puncture the “disinterested,” “objective” stance which professional suspicion takes the form of – while practicing it themselves! This is not as much of a withering critique as she seems to imagine it to be, because she has once again assumed that if “the ideal of objectivity … is traced back to modern regimes of power” it is “thus implicitly or explicitly discredited” (48). This is a pretty bad reduction of the ambiguous Foucauldian stance of the productivity of power – and given that Foucault is, to me, the primary source on what “critique” could or should be (she has yet to refer to his essay of that name), an insight into what potential insights could be missing overall from Felski’s book. We shall see; in regard to her point about the affective style of these Foucauldians (Rose, Joyce come to mind): to the extent that this is a valid criticism, should the answer be that they just need to re-read the Gay Science?

Felski ends with a restatement of her critique of critique (50) and a revealing statement:

A suspicious sensibility, it turns out, assumes various guises and crops up in many different milieus. It is cultivated by prosecutors and professionals as well as anarchists and avant-gardists; it thrives among cops as well as robbers, climate change skeptics as well as queer theorists. In short, suspicion is thoroughly enmeshed in the world rather than opposed to the world, and offers no special guarantee of intellectual insight, political virtue, or ideological purity. (51)

Let’s take these three sentences in turn. First sentence: the “suspicious sensibility” takes the form of a spook, which is truly acting when subjects imagine themselves to be; furthermore, it possesses the shapeshifting cleverness and mobility of metis. The paradox of whether such metis/polytropism opposes the State (a la Scott) or acts in its service (per various readings of the “polytropic” in colonialism) is immediately raised. Second sentence: lacking a proper name for this form, I called it a “crowded field” in my notes on the text. Basically it fills the function of any list of numerous disparate social actors (e.g., in taxi driver memoirs, summaries of their diverse passengers). Something panoramic is going on here though I have yet to explore it further. In the immediate context, however, she is making an important insight but does not seem to be drawing out of it what I would have (though this could happen later). I would suggest this shows how important and timely such suspicion is, and that suspicion (and its subcategory, or ambiguously related practice anyway, critique) take place within a crowded field in this “post-truth” moment. The complexity and contestedness of the current world hardly seems like a compelling denunciation of the need for critique as a “suspicious” re-articulation. Of “suspicion” perhaps; but this concept is the weakest and most amorphous in the book so far. Anyway the third sentence: I mean obviously this is absolutely correct, but again it is addressed to an amorphous “suspicion” rather than a more specific practice of “critique.” Perhaps the Gay Science or the Pyrrhonists should be referred to for a more joyous and varying affective experience of critique; Felski has simply defined the word into one affective corner and based her argument on this limitation (along with the subsequent hat-trick of shifting her criticism to “suspicion”). Anyway her next two chapters will explore the “style and sensibility of critique” in more depth.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Limits of Critique, Introduction


Rita Felski, (2015) The Limits of Critique. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Summary of Introduction

Felski announces that she will be taking on critique as both mood (rhetorically speaking, and perhaps also as a stance of the author) and method, and reiterates Ricoeur's term, the "hermeneutics of suspicion,” from which so much of the present critique of critique (or “postcritique” as Felski would prefer) is framed. She identifies four key elements of critique:

1) a "spirit of skeptical questioning or outright condemnation";

2. an "emphasis on its precarious position vis-à-vis overbearing and oppressive social forces;”

3) "the claim to be engaged in some kind of radical intellectual and/or political work" and

4) "the assumption that whatever is not critical must therefore be uncritical" (4). She will presumably be tackling each of these in turn throughout the book.

At several points she makes statements which place her project on the side of what I call "opening up" critiques of critique, that is, the emphasis is not on disabling critique as a term or a practice, but on opening up space for other approaches in an academic context in which "critique" has become dominant and even mandatory. [Note: by resisting "critique" as a dominant force, she is employing element 3 of "critique," above, even while resisting tactic 4 (she allows that non-post-critical critiques can be [critical].)]

 She jousts with invisible and unnamed interlocutors who sometimes take the form of straw men (e.g. on page 9). She launches into a criticism of what she identifies as the "critique of critique:" namely, the critique of critique as normally done, that is is not sufficiently critical (9). She points out that this can involve a certain posturing ("To be sure, critique has its problems, but only because it has strayed from its true path as I define it" (8)). [Debord's denouncements of "spectacular critique" come to mind]. And she points out that this “critique of critique” means that critique is the cure for critique, which leads to an endlessness of critique – which I hope she will later discuss in terms of Foucault's concept of the "Blackmail of the Enlightenment," and yet also of his sense of critique as an ethical imperative. She ends with a mention of "receptivity" as a position that is distinct from the shielded and wary practice of critique: this struck me as strange, because I had been thinking specifically of openness and receptivity as inherent aspects of critique (based on the practice at SUVA: to practice critique you need to be open to, receptive of the work of art while also keeping some distance (much like Lefebvre's in-out stance); and to be receptive to critique, you have to be open to criticism, while also keeping yourself separate enough from your artwork so as to not feel hurt, etc.]

In general this book looks quite exciting and promises to greatly expand my understanding of the nuance and breadth of "post-critique." Nevertheless I am also more and more convinced that this really could be called a "critique of critique." Felski (and others) are clearly delimiting "critique" into a particularly narrow category (just like Latour did) and then insisting that what is outside of that (namely, what they are doing) is not "critique." They thus are performing the very same definition-based move that they are criticizing. [And Foucault’s comments on how Kant opened up a “gap” between “critique” and Aufklärung seem immediately relevant]. This is all, also, situated within disciplines like literary criticism, which Felski identifies as overly saturated with critique. Much like with Latour, there is a presumption that "critique" is solely the practice of academics, and just how or why such a concept or term could be important outside of academia remains unaddressed and perhaps not even considered (but she promises to address the politics of critique in chapter four).

In passing, I noted a number of uses of enchanted language involving "spirit," or "demon," used negatively as something that possesses "critics." A promising aspect is the discussion of "mood" or rhetoric, and alternative hermeneutics beyond "suspicion."

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Cunning Intelligence, Chapters 3 through 6


Summary of Chapters 3 through 6

Chapter 3: The Combats of Zeus

Despite the name this chapter is really about the Theogony and the successive reigns of Ouranos, Kronos, and Zeus. The Prometheus story is discussed but not in anything like the depth I would have been interested in; hopefully both Prometheus and Pandora will return. The main point Detienne and Vernant make is to disagree with the tradition of pseudo-Apollonius who posed the U-K-Z cycle as three successive rulers. Instead, they argue, Gaia and Ouranos are primordial powers; Kronos uses metis to rebel violently against the overly passionate and stifling nature of Ouranos, and thus establishes the first kingships (by severing or smashing the originary nature of the universe, he created a split in the “texture of the world,” and thus the need for order, or an ordering force, is created: sovereignty comes into existence along with its opposite, evil). Sovereignty itself is a trick (dolos) conceived by Gaia and implemented by Kronos. However Kronos brings on the vengeance of the Erinyes, and Zeus comes to deliver justice and to bring a new order founded on more moderate and just metis. So there is a kind of dialectic going on.


Chapter 4: The Union with Metis and the Sovereignty of the Sky

The key point of this chapter is to explain the myth of Metis being eaten by Zeus as the foundation of Zeus's unending sovereignty, which differs from that of Kronos who was able to be overthrown. Zeus cannot (he does not even sleep), and even the trickery by Prometheus he actually sees through and tricks in turn. Metis and Themis (Justice) are contrasted as different kinds of oracles of the future: Metis sees what could happen and offers advice to mortals to help them shape the future; Themis, as destiny, sees a certain future and pronounces sentences of life, death etc. This is interesting in relationship to Boethius's attempt to reconcile God's perfect knowledge of the future (a la Themis) with human free will (a la Metis). By swallowing Metis and then marrying Themis, Zeus has consolidated power and inaugurated a new cosmic order to replace that of the Titans. Some further interesting elements are references to pharmakon and to Typhon and Anatolian dragon-slaying myths, relevant to Siegfried.

 Zeus tricked Metis, according to one version, by the old trick of getting her to change into a fly; they explore the examples of numerous parallel stories in which shapeshifters are tricked. And so the trickster becomes the tricked:

 What had been confused and enigmatic becomes, to the advantage of the one who dominates it, clear and unequivocal. (112)

It is the victory of knowing order over the polysemous and polytropic.

Chapter 5: The Orphic Metis and the Cuttle-fish of Thetis

This chapter traces the images of Metis in the Orphic theogonies, i.e. the Orphic religion  [which developed out of Dionysianism and thus was not quite orthodox re: ancient Greek religion; indeed it has more similarities with Isis/Osiris and with Christianity. Nevertheless the Orphic theogonies both borrow from and alter the story from Hesiod.] In any event the Orphic theogonies, and also some other sources such as a poem by Alcman and the “rhapsodic” theogonies, are surveyed to explore the theme of Metis and her attributes, even as the theogonies and their stories change, and as Metis is replaced or displaced by other goddesses or gods with different names but similar characteristics. On a side note, it becomes very interesting that there are so many different versions of the Greek gods’ origins, during both the Classical era (as shown in the tellings by various poets, playwrights, and philosophers), and later on.


Chapter 6: The Eye of Bronze

This short chapter starts off a section called, “The Divine Forms of Knowledge: Athena, Hephaestus.” Basically the character of Athena is discussed and her close relationship to her mother, Metis. The story of Murmix who steals the plough from Athena and is changed into an ant, is used to demonstrate that Athena possesses sollertia, manual skill and practical intelligence [the Latin term for metis, the story being from Servius]. They argue against the thesis that Athena was originally an earth goddess tied to agriculture, by showing that the agriculture/plough myth is really about technology and skill, not agriculture; after all Athena is the daughter of Zeus and metis, she is sometimes called Metis herself. Athena has renounced her femininity to maximize her warriorness. She is discussed in relation to the Dumezilian concept of a "warrior function." They discuss the power of Athena's shield, the Aegis, more powerful than Zeus's thunderbolt, and made either by Hephaestus or Metis, according to different myths. The Gorgon head paralyzes the enemy. 

 This mesmerizing power of the Gorgon which is deployed by the aegis is, in Homer's epic, also acknowledged to exist in the eyes of the frenzied warrior who is possessed by Lússa, Madness, or in the terrible glare projected by  a shield of bronze. (182)



Monday, February 21, 2022

Cunning Intelligence, Introduction and Chapters 1 and 2


Detienne, Marcel, and Jean-Pierre Vernant. (1991 [1974]). Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Summary of Introduction and Chapters 1 and 2


The authors explain their purpose in exploring a neglected field of study of ancient thought: the concept of metis or “cunning intelligence,” and how it was distinct from, and contrasted to, the philosophical discourse which was elaborated in ancient Greece. A few years earlier, in The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece, Detienne had articulated his theory of how the development of a rational philosophical discourse on truth or aletheia was a challenge to, and replacement for, an earlier limitation of the claim to truth to kings and poets, through whom the gods were thought to be speaking. The ancient philosophical dismissal of metis was thus of an alternate image of intelligence which competed with that of the purely rational, itself still new and fragile at the time.

"...metis is a type of intelligence and of thought, a way of knowing; it implies a complex but very coherent body of mental attitudes and intellectual behaviour which combine flair, wisdom, forethought, subtlety of mind, deception, resourcefulness, vigilance, opportunism, various skills, and experience acquired over the years. It is applied to situations which are transient, shifting, disconcerting and ambiguous, situations which do not lend themselves to precise measurement, exact calculation or rigorous logic." (3-4)

For this reason, it was ignored or sleighted by the philosophers as an alternate form of intelligence to the logical form which they themselves sought to elaborate and establish the authority of. The authors note some differences between the positions of Plato and Aristotle on this, and also the sophists, as arguably a transitional form who overlap with both the position of the philosophers and that of traditional metis. Greek philosophy established or relied on an opposition between Being and Becoming; Metis had no place in this since it "operates by continuously oscillating between two opposite poles" (5)

Chapter 1: Antilochus' Race

Detienne and Vernant use the example of a chariot race from the Iliad (and some other references, particularly to the myth of the goddess Metis) to explore several aspects of the concept of metis. In the race, Antilochus, following his father Nestor’s advice, defeats Menelaus by tricking him into thinking Antilochus has lost control of his horses, and is about to swerve into him, so Meneleus pulls up; Antilochus then wins the race. Four aspects of metis are defined and discussed:

1. Metis is a counter to strength, distinct from it and able to beat strength (though it is also good to have both);

2. There is a time of metis, the time of the agon or struggle. It is about finding opportunity (kairos) within the contest. A discussion of the "lightness" and "heaviness" of thought (metis seems to be a balance of these two qualities) and relation to prometheia, foresight.

3. Metis is multiple and diverse, shimmering; a valuable discussion of its relation to mobility is given.

4. Metis is about illusion, deception, masks; it hides truth [or, though the ancient Greeks would not have gone here, it could undermine a faith in truth (I was just reading similar questions in a Fifth Estate article by Ben Olson re: the Residents and surrealism.]


Chapter 2: The Fox and the Octopus

From Homer in the previous chapter, the works of Oppian and Pseudo-Oppian (and a few others peripherally) are considered. Fish are discussed as an example of metis in nature; hunters and fishers have to be more crafty than their prey. The Fox and the Octopus are particular exemplars of metis. Many aspects of metis such as reversal, deception, tangledness, etc. are emphasized. Connections to labyrinth, mobility, and polytropos are discussed. 

There is a comparison of the polytropic man with the ephemerosone, ephemeros man, so called by the Lyric poets: “He is a man of the moment, an man of change: now one thing,  now another; he shifts and slides from one extreme to the other” (40). Both are characterized by their mobility; however, ephemoros is a negative image, they are blown by the wind, not like the polytropic one, who maintains control: "The polutropos one, on the other hand, is distinguished by the control he possesses: supple and shifting as he is, he is always master of himself and is only unstable in appearance."  He traps his opponent through apparent changes. "He is not the plaything of movement but its master." He gives the appearance of the ephemeros to manipulate people. Plutarch is cited on Alcibiades as an example of a polytropic man

Metis is pragmatic and applied rather than abstract (in contrast with philosophy):

"It is an intelligence which, instead of contemplating unchanging essences, is directly involved  in the difficulties of practical life with all its risks, confronted with a world of hostile forces which are disturbing because they are always changing and ambiguous." (44)

The Sophist has some characteristics of metis: 

"And again, it is in terms of hunting and fishing that he defines the art of the sophist who, in contrast to the philosopher whose wisdom is directed towards the world of ideas, embodies the scheming intelligence of the man of metis, plunged into the world of appearance and of Becoming. By means of his skill and rhetorical ploys, the sophist can make the weaker argument triumph over the stronger."  (45)

Sunday, February 20, 2022

A Thousand Plateaus, Chapter 2


Summary of Chapter 2: 1914: One or Several Wolves?

D&G use the story of the Wolf-Man, one of Freud’s famous patients, to articulate the concept of multiplicity. The Wolf-Man, embodying multiplicity, told a story of a dream with a shifting number of wolves; Freud, representing the arborescent method, reduces this to a single wolf representing the father and the overall reductive psychoanalytical approach that can reduce everything to a variation on one story. They bring in their terminology of “molar” (acting as a mass or a whole: being) vs. “molecular” (acting as a particle or particles: becoming), distinguishing “molecular multiplicities” from “molar unities.” Just as with the previous chapter, they hold these concepts apart for a while first, emphasizing their differences, before overthrowing this “dualist opposition” to show how the two are complicatedly interrelated and dependent on each other in the real world.

They talk about the “global comparison” made by “hysterics or obsessives” according to Freud, who are “capable of making a global comparison between a sock and a vagina, a scar and a castration, etc.” 27). The molar or neurotic approach is to see the sock as a vagina, while the psychotic sees all the stitches as a field of vaginas, or goosebumps as fields of tiny rhinoceros horns/phalluses, etc. [cf. Bakhtin’s “grotesque”]. Insofar as this applies both to the people Freud is treating, and to Freud’s method itself, it makes for an interesting development on Freud’s method as a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” as this was discussed by Felski in the second chapter of The Limits of Critique. In my notes on that I felt that there was an opening up of suspicion, followed by a pulling back and cutting off of suspicion (in other words a choice of allowing a certain amount but not too much, in order to create a productive discourse or method of analysis at a pragmatic point along the continuum from less to more suspicion), seen in each of the forms of critique Felski was criticizing, and also in her own critique of critique. Here in this chapter we see Freud’s method as just such a pulling back from too much suspicion or “global comparison,” while Deleuze and Guattari undermine Freud’s molar response by pushing further, towards the molecular multiplicity.

A discussion of “words” and “things” can’t help being a reference to Foucault, although it is Freud who is discussed. Freud dismisses the psychotic as seeing only (extensive) words instead of (intensive) things; the (extensive) relationship between the different holes, etc. here is false according to the molar insistence on intensive wholes [if they had been writing in English, they would surely have made the “w/hole” play on words]. This is actually a move to [misrecognize] the psychotics as also thinking in a molar way: “Thus, when there is no unity in the thing, there is at least unity and identity in the word” (27) which psychotics are mistaking for the thing. According to D&G, it is actually Freud who is here invoking the “devious despotic agency” of “the Signifier” (28).

The image of “becoming-wolf” is used to describe how being in multiplicity is, well, multiple: you are never a wolf by yourself, but a wolf as part of a pack: can’t be one wolf, you’re always eight or nine, six or seven. Not six or seven wolves all by yourself all at once, but one wolf among others, with five or six others. (29)

Similarly the unconscious is “fundamentally a crowd.” The Body without Organs (BwO) is the sort of background on which these molecular multiplicities (crowds, organs, wolves) form and dissolve (in other words it is does not become a “mass,” does not reduce these to parts in a molar whole). The concept of “relative indivisibility” is discussed re these wolves etc. which form the pack: they are “ceaselessly transformed, and cannot be divided or transformed without their elements changing in nature each time” (31).

They explain that their “substantive” of multiplicities was “created precisely in order to escape the abstract opposition between the multiple and the one, to escape dialectics...” (32). They discuss various precursors who distinguished between multiple kinds of multiplicities: Riemann, Meinong, Russell, Bergson, and Canetti. From this they derive the distinction between the [anarchic, molecular] pack and the [molar, unifying] mass (33). Hierarchy and equality exist in both, but hierarchy is less stable in packs, and while packs are “constituted by a line of flight or deterritorialization,” masses “only integrate these lines in order to segment them, obstruct them, ascribe them a negative sign” (33) [my italics in both of those quotes, to emphasize the verbs. It is interesting that the mass here is only described as destroying or obstructing the line of flight, instead of feeding off it or using it in some productive manner, e.g. exploiting it].

From page 34, they turn to disabling the dualism of “molecular machines” versus “molar machines” because a dualism would of course be arborescent and molar:

How could lines of deterritorialization be assignable outside of circuits of territoriality? Where else but in wide expanses, and in major upheavals in these expanses, could a tiny rivulet of new intensity suddenly start to flow? (34)

They apply their complex reading of multiplicities in several contexts, first in an evocative description of love, and then in a discussion of statements which is very reminiscent of Deleuze’s later book on Foucault: “There are no individual statements, only statement-producing machinic assemblages” (36). An individual person is not just a member of groups but has groups inside them [i.e., they are not a fundamental unit of the assemblage, but a point of [figuration] along the way from the molecular to the molar]:

We can no longer even speak of distinct machines, only of types of interpenetrating multiplicities that at any given minute form a single machinic assemblage …. Each of us is caught up in an assemblage of this kind, and we reproduce its statements when we think we are speaking in our own name or rather we speak in our own name when we produce its statement. (36)

A page on they describe these statement-producing assemblages as “collective agents of enunciation” which must be understood not as “peoples or societies but multipliticies” (37). One key takeaway is their attempt to overcome the opposition between the “social” and the “individual” (an aspect of statist, molar thinking), with this concept of the pack in which everyone is inherently both social and individual. In their discussion of Kafka’s story “Jackals and Arabs,” they approve of the jackals’ desire for “cleanliness” which (in a parenthesis by Massumi?) is identified as propreté in French, meaning also (etymologically, at least), ownness.

Saturday, February 19, 2022

A Thousand Plateaus, Chapter 1


Summary of Chapter 1: Introduction: Rhizome

[I guess they are supposed to be called “Plateaus” but I’ll just call them “chapters”]

D&G set out to introduce their key concept of rhizome, by talking about what their book is not: it is not an image of the world, with the author(s) as God(s), all seeing. This seems like an unnecessary thing to explain, until it is revealed exactly what sort of a theory of representation they are arguing against: a “tripartite division” between 1) a field of reality (the world); 2) a field of representation (the book); and 3) a field of subjectivity (the author) (23). Thus what they are quite keen to argue against is this kind of separation which, in addition to a [reified, objectified] world, posits a separate realm of representation and/or “signifiance”, and another distinct realm of the subject; each of these being able to connect and mimic or represent or know the other in some way (or in a hierarchical way, with the subject creating the representation of the world).

Next, they separate out three kinds of books. The first is the root-book, or tree book; “root” and “tree” are equivalent here because they involve bifurcation from a common stem, or “pivot.” The spoiler of sorts is that they are not really attacking trees or roots, but the way these are used as a model in human, particularly Western, thought. They discuss a second type of book, the radicle-system, in which the primary root has been aborted and replaced with a multiplicity. However, D&G claim that a unity is somehow restored; the multiplicity of the radicle has not fundamentally broken with the root. They seem here to be criticizing various modernist and post-modernist attempts at creating or representing multiplicity; Bakhtin’s thoughts on writing that incorporates other voices but orchestrates them and thus remains ultimately monologic, come to mind.

As the third type they posit the rhizome and delineate six characteristics: connection, heterogeneity, multiplicity, asignifying rupture, cartography, and decalcomania. In their discussion of connection and heterogeneity they criticize Chomsky’s tree-system of classification, and claim “there is no language in itself” (7). This again appears to be a claim against the separate existence of language (as a field of representation) and instead, language takes place in the world along with everything else; there is no bifurcation into another realm or field that stands against the world that is being represented. They point out that “language” (as in English, French, etc.) is connected with power and with political centralization [this same valid-as-far-as-it-goes observation is what iirc Delanda took a bit too far in claiming that Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, etc. are not “languages” but “dialects” of English, because they don’t have a sovereign nation-state].

They distinguish between the “substantive multiplicity” of the rhizome and the “arborescent pseudomultiplicities” of the radicle (8). They introduce the concept of assemblage, as relating to rhizomatic multiplicity; and their distinction between “points” (which are fixed and limited), and “lines” (which being multiple points, or more accurately relations between points, are about possibility or potential or the “virtual” [I forget which means which in this Deleuzian/Massumian terminology]). “All multiplicities are flat, in the sense that they fill or occupy all of their dimensions” (9). This means there is no other dimension, specifically of hierarchy, overlooking them (the way that the subject and representation overlook the world in the tripartite view which they are opposing). Multiplicities do have multiple dimensions, just not this hierarchical kind, thus they are “flat” from that perspective. Terms like “plane of consistency,” “plane of exteriority,” and “line of flight” are introduced, which I believe will be discussed in more depth later. In any event unity is overcoding, a “supplementary dimension,” (which brings to my mind an aspect of hauntology) which the authors oppose [though they do not oppose “abstract machines,” which here mean something else, perhaps because as machines they are physical, within the world rather than outside it].

With “asignifying rupture” and the image of the wasp and the orchid they introduce the concepts of deterritorialization and reterritorialization, and their relationship. Presumably the point is that the relationship between the wasp and the orchid, the way they have evolved to interact, has nothing to do with signification or a field of representation. This leads into the subjects of “Cartography” and “Decalcomania”. The latter (which is not as much discussed as the “mapping” metaphor) is a better metaphor (or actually example) of what they mean, because it is a literal transfer of an image from one surface to another; like what I have tried calling an imprint when trying to think about the difference between the analogue and the digital. What they here call a “map” would be like the orchid’s map of the wasp, or the particular shape of the indents on the record, which relate to (but specifically do not mimic) the sounds being recorded; which then relate also to the sounds reproduced when the record is played [these all have some related shape which has been passed through these forms, but not as the same shape; nevertheless it is unique and has never been cooked down into binaries and built up again in digital manner.] To this idea of “map” (which is a good thing per D&G) they oppose the bad act of “tracing,” which relies on a pun with the French word, trait (as explained in the translator’s introductory Note). [Besides drawing or tracing, they view photographs as bad (examples of tracing), which somewhat imperils my interpretation above of what a “map” entails and how it differs from “tracing,” because photographs, at least as traditionally developed, involve also such a process of tracing (but don’t they also involve decalcomania, from negative to print?]. But in the end it has to do with a flat view of the world, with language, subjects, etc. all inside it, versus one in which there is some outside looking over: “The map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing involves an alleged ‘competence’” (terminology derived from linguistics) (12-3).

From page 13 on, they start problematizing the dichotomy between maps and tracings (and later between rhizomes and trees, etc.) because after all, what they do not want to do is introduce new dichotomies. Thus, they are at pains to describe what they are doing, which involves the necessary use of anexact (not inexact) language, which is “the exact passage of that which is under way” (20). [“Inexact” would be no better than “exact,” because it would preserve the idea of an ultimate, objective or true “exactness,” which could be increasingly approached by less and less inexact language]. The root tree and the rhizome are not two opposed models: rather, the first is a model (which is transcendent and imposed on the world) and the latter is an immanent process that overturns the model – even though trees and rhizomes interact and rely on and produce each other. In reality these exist in all kinds of profusion and interaction, the point of separating them out and opposing them is just to enable another way of thinking which is not the so-long dominant, and limiting, tree model. This explication is very welcome and opens up a much richer understanding and usefulness of their terminology; some of their “anexact” language used along the way, as talking about “microfascisms” in all of us (and indeed in any tree-like structure in nature) was simply ridiculous. I would argue that the term “fascism” is overused when it is equated with the state or any kind of hierarchical relationship (which they repeatedly do); there are enough reasons to be critical of the State without reducing it all to fascism, a subcategory.

They explain the derivation of their term “plateau” from Bateson: “a continuous, self-vibrating region of intensities whose development avoids any orientation toward a culmination point or external end” (22). They add, “We call a ‘plateau’ any multiplicity connected to other multiplicities by superficial underground stems in such a way as to form or extend a rhizome.” The connection with Bateson here invokes a lineage back to Wiener and his cybernetics (though neither are cited), insofar as Bateson is a more subtle and complex thinker who was nevertheless influenced by, and in conversation with, Wiener. Wiener’s insights are the system that self-maintains itself against entropy (seen by him as evil), along with the concepts of feedback and noise in communication (within systems but also presumably between them). The question, going beyond Wiener’s vision, is to what extent such “noise” and “entropy” are or can be actually productive rather than merely opposed. This also has not really been addressed by D&G, so far: to what extent tree systems do not just limit or misrepresent rhizomes, but rely on or exploit their creativity; to what extent such rhizomatic energy or creativity does not just tear down or resist the tree model, but powers or is used to power it.

They introduce their concept of nomadology, which will be the opposite of history, because the latter is sedentary and always “in the name of a unitary State apparatus, at least a possible one” (23). This is unfortunately tied up with their orientalizing and exoticizing statements about “Nomads,” “China,” etc. (e.g., [American] “Indians without ancestry” (19). There is particularly an especially bad quote from Henry Miller equating “China” with “weeds” (19). They note that he seems to be talking about an imaginary China (“Which China is Miller talking about?”), but they also throw in references from scholarly works about the east, and seem to move back and forth between the “Orient” as a frightening, exotic, or mesmerizing Other in European thought, and its actual existence as a place with a history, culture, and so on, and to slip from one to the other in a way that equates them, at least implicitly. Perhaps they could reasonably argue that these aspects together form an assemblage in Western thinking, but this assemblage needs to be de-articulated, not re-articulated as philosophy. In a similar move they deny any claim that their book is “science,” yet they are happy to rely on scientific accounts and concepts, and the authority these convey.

There are various technological, and more disturbingly, military, metaphors used throughout. “Coding,” and “measurement” are used both when talking about tree-systems and rhizomes. “Automata” are discussed, but a distinction is made between “central” or pivotal automata, and [networked] automata functioning together in a rhizome. This latter is perhaps derived from Rosenstiehl and Petitot from whence they also get the question of whether a firing squad could operate without a general – the implication apparently being that it could, but why should it? D&G have earlier attacked the concept of language being discussed without its context of power, why should this not also apply to firing squads? This is linked again to their use of “war” and “war machines” and their need to see “war” (used in this way, in any event) as a nomadic invention in response to the state (and which the state captures?) rather than a foundational aspect of the state itself (“fascist” or otherwise).

Friday, February 18, 2022

A Thousand Plateaus, Introduction

[I was planing to read What is Philosophy but quickly realized the text was making heavy use of concepts from this book, of which my 15-year-old recollection is fuzzy. So instead I will reread this book (and take better notes) first, arguably a bit of an ambitious undertaking.]

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, (1987 [1980]) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Summary of Translator's Foreword: Pleasures of Philosophy

by Brian Massumi


Massumi emphasizes the contrast between "state philosophy" or representational thinking, and Deleuze and Guattari's project of "nomad thought" which this book is an example of, or a toolset for. State thinking is described in ways very evocative of Aristotle's categories (exclusivity, hierarchy), and also Plato's forms (ideals in relation to which objects, etc. are organized/referred.) According to Massumi (and presumably Deleuze, he is referencing Difference and Repetition), the whole history of the modern university, and of modern philosophy, is about normalizing the state (my paraphrase) and getting policemen into people's heads. 

Massumi states that "A concept is like a brick. It can be used to build the courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window" (xii). This metaphor is apparently Massumi's (he later notes that Deleuze uses the metaphor of a toolbox). Massumi uses the brick image to describe the concept as part of an [assemblage] of arm, human, purpose, etc. – essentially, circumstances. "Because the concept in its unrestrained usage is a set of circumstances, at a volatile juncture. It is a vector: the point of application of a force moving through a space at a given velocity in a given direction" (xiii). The first part of that statement is strongly reminiscent of Voloshinov's specificity of utterances; the second part actually reminds me a bit of Aristotle's physics... but in any event is useful as a way of describing concepts in relation to space and movement.

Massumi makes a bozo distinction between "power" which builds walls, and "force" which arrives from outside to break them down. To my knowledge Deleuze and Guattari do not also make this dumb distinction, a massive step back from Foucault's key insight. (In the following note on translation Massumi discusses/defines several key concepts, including "power;" both puissance and pouvoir are translated as "power," so this "force" distinction is presumably not related to that (though it sounds like by "force" he means "puissance," but oh well.)

State space is striated space; nomad space is smooth. Movement in state space is "confined as if by gravity to a horizontal plane, and limited by the order of that plane to preset paths between fixed and identifiable points" (xiii). Nomad space, in contrast, allows movement in any direction. We will see how useful this contrast is in the rest of the book.

Massumi concludes with some observations about music (encouraging readers to treat the text as a record with different tracks), discusses what is meant by “plateau,” and gives observations on Deleuze's concept of "style." He ends with Deleuzian pragmatics: "The question is not: is it true? But: does it work?" (xv). What new thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions are made possible? The implication being, that the older state/representational thinking involves a constricting or channeling of these possibilities.

And this for my reading is crucial, because I tend to treat Deleuze and Guattari as adjuncts to Foucault's philosophy (and according to Massumi, this would not bother them, as the book is not meant as a system, but as a collection of tools). So I am interested more in the relation between smooth and striated spaces, and to what extent this relationship itself is significant in the production of society and the operation of power (in the Foucauldian sense). Also, to what extent does this discussion of representational thinking, as implicated in the state, have to bear on the present critique of critique (or post-critique, a la Felski)?

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Labor and Monopoly Capital, Chapter 7


Summary of Chapter 7: The Scientific-Technical Revolution

Braverman distinguishes between the "physical, chemical, and biological properties of materials and the processes which can be based upon them," and management, which does not directly engage with this central aspect of production: "it merely provides the formal structure for the production process." The process itself, or content, is originally a matter of technique and skill; but through the course of the scientific revolution, such skill is increasingly displaced by scientific knowledge. Thus the modern production process has come to be characterized by "a content supplied by a scientific and engineering revolution within a form supplied by the rigorous division and subdivision of labor favored by capitalist management” (107). Science itself has been transformed, from the province of "philosophers and tinkerers" to a well organized and funded system, supported by the wealth of the capitalist class (including tax revenues, which are controlled by the capitalist class).

A formerly relatively free-floating social endeavor is integrated into production and the market. (108)

 [Here an alignment with Bookchin, who would perhaps see such "free floating" scientific inquiry as a kind of spontaneous expression of human spirit, reigned in and coming under the control of capitalism].

This transition (from technique to science, and from independent to dependent science) is that from the Industrial Revolution, of the 18th and 19th centuries, to the scientific-technical revolution, starting in the late 19th century and continuing in Braverman's day (1974). Up through the Industrial Revolution, technique (meaning the working knowledge of mechanics, artisans, etc.) preceded scientific knowledge. He gives the example of the steam engine: all the improvements were made by working mechanics, not by [academic] scientists [who were focused on theory;] the scientific understanding of heat, for instance, was well behind the actual development of the steam engine at the time (108-9).

 The shift was in the late 19th century:

The old epoch of industry gave way to the new during the last decades of the nineteenth century primarily as a result of advances in four fields: electric­ity, steel, coal-petroleum, and the internal combustion engine. Scientific re­search along theoretical lines played enough of a role in these areas to demonstrate to the capitalist class, and especially to the giant corporate entities then coming into being as a result of the concentration and centralization of capital, its importance as a means of furthering the accumulation of capital. (109)

This was particularly true in the electrical industries, which were entirely the product of nineteenth-century science, and in the chemistry of the synthetic products of coal and oil. (110) 

[I wonder where my guys Ladd and Field would fit in here -- they are tinkerers and entrepreneurs, seemingly much more applied than scholarly].

Braverman discusses the importance of Germany as the place where the scientific development of capitalism began. [As an interesting aside I was just reading Foucault’s somewhat more esoteric claim that Germany was ahead of France in terms of developing a critical questioning of reason, during the same period]. One of the reasons Germany turned to science sooner was its relative lack of resources compared to other European powers (with greater colonial holdings) and the US (with greater land area and resources). In the US, Edison's lab is formed in 1876; the growth of monopoly capitalism leads to growth in corporate research laboratories from late 19th through early 20th centuries. He discusses the role of WWII in transforming US into the leading scientific nation.

In conclusion he reiterates the importance of the shift from industrial to scientific-technical revolution:

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, what Landes called "the exhaustion of the technological possibilities of the Industrial Revolution" had set in. The new scientific-technical revolution which replenished the stock of technological possibilities had a conscious and purposive character largely absent from the old. In place of spontaneous innovation indirectly evoked by the social processes of production came the planned progress of technology and product design. This was accomplished by means of the transformation of science itself into a commodity bought and sold like the other implements and labors of production. (114)

The “key innovation” of modernity, argues Braverman, is not in itself technological, but rather the context in which technology is developed:

The key innovation [of the scientific-technical revolution] is not to be found in chemistry, electronics, automatic machinery, aeronautics, atomic physics, or any of the products of these science-technologies, but rather in the transformation of science itself into capital. (115)



Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Labor and Monopoly Capital, Chapter 6


Summary of Chapter 6: The Habituation of the Worker to the Capitalist Mode of Production

Braverman turns to the general question of how the worker is acclimated or habituated to the capitalist mode of production, given that this mode of production is deeply "inhuman" and exploitative; and also that it is the result of a growing control over the labor process, taking away skills and control, as well as better pay, that workers had previously had. The short answer is that they are not: they are merely forced to comply because other options have been destroyed, but remain deeply resentful of the labor situation. A key distinction is also made between industrial engineers who design and develop the labor process for management, and industrial psychologists and sociologists who are supposedly supposed to get the workers to go along with this.

Braverman gives the history of industrial psychology, and later the human relations movement, which grew out of criticisms of the former (that it was deeply inaccurate and simplistic). He then dismisses both, because industrial engineers pay no attention to them. At best, they serve to provide an ideological dressing for the factory. He quotes some sociologists who talk about the "inconsistency" of the fact that the labor process is redesigned to make the individual worker less and less important, while they are repeatedly being told by HR etc that they are absolutely important: Braverman responds that:

But this is more than an "inconsistency," since job design represents reality while personnel administration represents only mythology. From the point of view of the corporation, there is no inconsistency, since the latter represents a manipulation to habituate the worker to the former. (100)

Nevertheless, if manipulation by sociology and psychology are of relatively little importance, and only secondary, the question remains: 

If the adaptation of the worker to the capitalist mode of production owes little to the efforts of practical and ideological manipulators, how is it in fact accomplished? (100)

Braverman gives the example of the Fordist assembly line and worker response of walkouts and unionization attempts under the IWW. Ford is forced to respond by raising pay, and the overall industry responds with a graduated pay scale which appears to separate low-skill workers from the ones who will get higher pay [in accordance with the “detail worker” separation discussed in Chapter 3]. Organized labor goes along with this, leading to Fordism. The result is that the new capitalist control of production beats out all competitors: when there are no other options to turn to, workers must acquiesce. However, the manipulation and control are essentially economic, existing in the broader economic system, not in the psychological controls of HR and so on. Workers remain hostile and cynical regarding their work.

 An immediate observation is that Braverman is contradicting the sociological [!] argument that school, for instance, operates as a training ground for work (Braverman calls youth a "reserve" who have been held in "a prolonged period of adolescence" at the end of which they are "plunged into work from the outside" (96), in contrast to the earlier craft mode in which youths worked and learned family trades or were apprentices). The contrast that comes to mind is Foucault's "disciplinary archipelago" which he wrote about just a few years after this book, in which discipline in schools, work, the army, etc. come together to produce disciplined individuals. Several points of difference can be described here:

1) Braverman is talking particularly about the experience of the working class; Foucault discusses factories, etc. but his perspective and its reception could be more relevant to the middle classes, office work (which is more like school work), etc. If working class youth see their schooling as ridiculous or unconvincing, then the disciplinary archipelago is not instilling its values into them anyway: as in the "no future" generation of exactly this time period, or a little after.

2) There could also be some relevant difference here between US and European contexts in how different classes are schooled.

3) Foucault's approach is also individualistic – about how discipline shapes individual subjects, while Braverman is focused more on the class and on workers as groups – this was a critique made also by the HR school of the original industrial psychologists, which Braverman points out. Of course in Foucault discipline is not perfectly successful in disciplining "unruly bodies", and this inherent failure is part of its self-justification and continuing need for expansion.

4) Nevertheless the resistance to discipline in Foucault seems that of an individual, while Braverman is more interested in class consciousness. Thus the figure of workers being hostile and only apparently accepting of their role, essentially awaiting a historic moment in which to rebel, makes sense from his perspective, and is more desirable for his argument. There is a good question about a rapprochement between the perspectives, rendering a less individualized account than Foucault's in which resentment and class consciousness (latent or otherwise) has more of a role, while also treating discipline more seriously and less dismissively than Braverman does.