Words and things pt. 5: Practice of theory

by Carl Dyke

Hoping that a polite interval has passed I’m going to respond to N. Pepperell’s meme about the practice of theory, which I was not tagged for; but I do tend to barge into conversations.

(Btw the image I get from the metaphor of “barging in” tickles me every time.)

This barge is impressively authoritative.

This barge is big and stinky.

The question is roughly whether theory is a kind of practice; whether there’s anything practical about theory; whether interpreting the world in some sense contributes to changing it, to invoke Marx’s famous gesture at the question. As usual, my answer is yes; maybe; but.

NP does some very nice things with suggesting that theories are situated in history, as part of the general collective practices of places and times. This is inconsistent with a notion of transcendental truth, but is consistent with the sociology of knowledge, for example Gramsci’s distinction of thought into common sense, good sense, and philosophy, in which each is a dynamic general understanding of the times that is functionally more or less systematic, synthetic, and practical. In fact, any sociology of knowledge is going to start or get quickly to the notion that ideas do not float above it all but are constructed from the materials of their environments; this is why the real philosophers who are most inclined to ask these questions tend to hate real sociologists (and anthropologists) with a cold, murderous passion, when they’re not simply ignoring them. So NP’s sensible remarks about the contingent value of working out the conditions and possibilities of the world we (may) want to change, and about the limitations of our cleverness with respect to the intentions and consequences available in our situations are going inevitably to fall on some aggressively deaf ears.

Sociologies of knowledge track theories emerging variously out of the manifold of particular historical formations as if we thought of them ourselves. From this perspective theories only ‘work’ if they’re aligned with the other worky bits of the configuration. The grand ambition of changing the whole world requires a whole lot of alignment all at once; short of that, theories ‘work’ in a variety of ways, for example by aligning intellectuals in orthodoxies that control access to goods like jobs and publication opportunities and blogroll entries, or by creating insular little communities of righteousness. But again the question here has to do with political theories producing intentional political effects.

The paradox of unintended consequences figures subtly and diplomatically in NP’s analysis; my inclination is to move it right out front. The history of large-scale attempts intentionally to change the world (always for the better, in the view of the protagonists), is sometimes, and from some perspective always, a bad one. Ordinary kindnesses are appealing and can be even disproportionately effective, but the multi-thousand-year history of religious charity should offer a cautionary tale on expecting too much from that strategy. On another small scale unintended consequences abound in teachers’ attempts to shape students’ thinking, which is a very direct example of theories trying to work in what may be hostile or inhospitable environments. I am occasionally successful in getting a student to think the kinds of thoughts I do (you may by now be sorry to hear this); invariably they were already about 99% there when I found them. I try to move the others along the same 1%, which in some cases gets them to 1%. I counterproductively piss off my share too.

But it’s not just a matter of getting a hundred stimuli in the right sequence. We find the conditions we want to change, e.g. people’s heads, in a variety of orientations which must be taken into account. As Gramsci said in the Prison Notebooks, Q 24,

The unitary … elaboration of a homogeneous collective consciousness demands a wide range of conditions and initiatives. … A very common error is that of thinking that every social stratum elaborates its consciousness and its culture in the same way, with the same methods, namely the methods of the professional intellectuals. … It is childish to think that a ‘clear concept’, suitably circulated, is inserted in various consciousnesses with the same ‘organizing’ effects of diffused clarity: this is an ‘enlightenment’ error. … When a ray of light passes through different prisms it is refracted differently: if you want the same refraction, you need to make a whole series of rectifications of each prism.

Going back to the theme of the thread, it’s not that we can’t change things with a word. It’s that the same word in different situations and deliveries may catalyze transformative change or transformative opposition, contribute to the conditioning of a future transformation or cause counterproductive irritation, be misunderstood in any number of ways, or fail to connect entirely. Linear, intentional change at the level of language would require a complete unpacking of all of the dynamics of delivery and reception across all of the situations and materialities of the construction of consciousness. Controlling the stimuli in a dense interactive field is um, tricky, as any parent will tell you.

Starting with the press as an obvious point of departure Gramsci noted the intricacy of this field very quickly: “Everything which influences or is able to influence public opinion, directly or indirectly, belongs to it: libraries, schools, associations and clubs of various kinds, even architecture and the layout and names of streets.” That looks like a lot of little battles we ought to fight. But the impact of these sites of reality-formation is not simply additive, it’s dynamic. So dipping our paddles where we can may seem like what we each can do, but in the absence of a comprehensive understanding is just as likely to add eddies that slow the flow of change.

To Gramsci and other revolutionaries like Robespierre, Saint-Just, Lenin, Stalin and Mao who saw this problem it looked like rigorous coordination and conformity was necessary to get things moving right. Gulp. Wiseguys like me get taken out and shot in the first days of the revolution, for good reason. Terror ensues as mere humans fail to agree upon or measure up to the ideal of total virtue in the good cause. This is a bigger gamble than I care to venture.

And so far I’ve only addressed words. How shall we relate words to things? It’s not surprising that people who have only words to work with tend to think of words as powerful. And on them/us, they are. At the least common denominator this is straightforwardly a kind of magical thinking. Of course the efficacy of particular incantations is limited to those who share the magical vocabulary: abracadabra, change, proletariat, Volk, vafanculo. Figuring out the magical vocabulary of this or that group is one of the keys to effective power, as I illustrated in the first post in this string.

Demagicking words or better, contextualizing their power seems like a useful little service I/we can perform, but my ambitions are very small and local. Again Gramsci, who against his own analysis of the infinite complexity of the formation and reformation of reality had only the motto “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” to offer, points to the difficulty:

“Hence it is a matter of studying ‘in depth’ which elements of civil society correspond to the defensive systems in the war of position. The use of the phrase ‘in depth’ is intentional, because these elements have been studied; but either from superficial and banal viewpoints, as when certain historians of manners study the vagaries of women’s fashions, or from a ‘rationalistic’ viewpoint — that is, with the conviction that certain phenomena are destroyed as soon as they are ‘realistically’ explained, as if they were popular superstitions (which anyway are not destroyed either merely by being explained).” Q 13.

Ahem. Mission accomplished?

3 Responses to “Words and things pt. 5: Practice of theory”

  1. Hey there 🙂 To be honest, I would have tagged you for this, but felt constrained by having just tagged you for something else – meme overload 🙂 When I am back in Melbourne, or should my brain suddenly decide to reappear while I’m still abroad, I’ll reply properly – just wanted to duck in quickly to say thanks for the response. 🙂


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