Sometimes I find the elipse-question format for post titles a bit limiting. Mostly when I can’t think of a title that fits the format. Of course, I usually can’t think of any other title either. I’ve been in a bit of interbloggal conversation lately. Partly with Larval Subjects and mostly with RoughTheory about critical theory, which relates tangentially to the argument Jodi and I have been having about experience. I don’t know to summarize the discussions and I’m pretty tired (returned this morning from my 4th wedding since the beginning of June, which was fun and/but left me a bit worn out, during a summer in which I think ‘worn out’ has been my default feeling, unfortunately) so I’m not going to try (not trying is part of the worn out feeling, actually). They’re worth reading in their entirety, so click the links.
The discussion at RoughTheory turns in part around the theoretical grounding of positions, I think. While I like the discussion there and find it very compelling, there’s a bit of a disconnect for me. It’s not that I don’t think having coherent arguments and so on is important. I do. In that sense (grounding as in ‘justification’, as in ‘holds water as an argument’), I’m interested, onboard, and want N Pepperell to succeed in working all that out so I can read it. But that’s not the problem that’s really compelled me for a long time. What’s compelled me is less a matter of argument holding water and more a matter of the temperature of the water, so to speak. That is, I’m less concerned with exhaustive establishment of the truth of propositions regarding the critique and abolition of the present order than I am with sound conviction in that truth.
Let me put it this way. It’s one thing to affirm as true the proposition “my partner and I are in love.” It’s another to feel that strongly. Analogously, in politics or organization or whatever one calls it, it’s one thing affirm as true the proposition “capitalism can be abolished and replaced with a better order.” It’s another to feel it strongly. The second is a matter of conviction, of confidence. [Note to self, look these words up in the OED.] There’s the validity of an argument (the argument, if scrutinized, holds water), then there’s the belief in the truth of the proposition (one holds to the argument after encountering it – one affirms the proposition), then there’s a subjective feeling about the proposition which involves something like being able to really imagine the proposition coming about, the world really changing.
One could believe it’s not raining, but continually be opening the window to test if this is (still) true. Nowhere in that repeated testing of the proposition is there ever affirmed the proposition “it is raining.” In that case, it’s not a problem. In the case of love, though, it likely would be. A partner who continually tested one’s love, sought to re-verify it, would be harder partner to stay with than one who did not do so, presumably. Similarly, a comrade who continually seeks to re-verify that the revolutionary project is possible would likely be less commendable than the comrade who did not (all other things being equal). Or hell, not even the revolutionary project but much less thoroughgoing projects such as forming a union. In the middle of such a project, conviction can be quite useful and lack of conviction quite an obstacle. (For the sake of argument let’s define ‘conviction’ as involving relative infrequency of testing. More conviction that X means that one asks “Is X the case?” less often.) At the very least, lack of conviction and the energy spent on worry (for the sake of argument let’s say worry is either subjecting something to repeated testing or the repeated thought that perhaps the proposition may prove not to be true despite evidence) is corrosive and tiring, which during stressful things like a boss’s anti-union fight (which pales in comparison to the greater repressive tactics used in other more intensely conflictual situations) can really make or break the outcome.
I can see how theory of the sort that N Pepperell is talking about could quite useful for this kind of conviction. (An aside slightly related to this – I used to hang around a marxist and hegelian group who would assert that the movement needs philosophy. I always used to say that I agreed with them in the sense of need in the opening of v1 of Capital, where needs aren’t ranked and aren’t well defined. Needs are just things that make objects useful. The movement can use philosophy. Therefore there could be said to be a need for philosophy. Similarly the movement can use graphic designers and doctors and lawyers and body builders and sign painters and so on. But none of those, including philosophy is needed in the sense of being a necessary condition for the movement’s existence or its success. Likewise with critical theory.) I also think that in some cases and for some people critical theory may not be sufficient for producing conviction. I’ve found historical examples as productive or more than theoretical arguments. (The two aren’t absolutely opposed.) In general, I think narrative accounts are more productive in this capacity. (I’m thinking among other things of Richard Rorty’s insistence that sharing and spreading sad stories does more for moral progress than philosophical arguments, Rorty cites _Uncle Tom’s Cabin_ as having more significance in changing people’s behavior for the better than any or all of Kant’s works. I think that’s likely to be true.)
I’m happy to take a ‘whatever works for whomever’ kind of approach – the kind of theory N Pepperell wants to see (and like I said, I wish NP success in this) could be one kind of tool. Historical narratives another. Another is stacking the deck on the other side such that there’s a subjective choice to suspend uncertainty and act as if the proposition is true. That is, one can get people to suspend testing and act with something like confidence (and acting as if one feels confident, over time, can generate a feeling of confidence.) Like in bad movies, lines like “I’ve just got to believe that (s)he’s still alive.” One can get someone to find a certain situation intolerable such that the belief “this intolerable situation has to be changed” (which implies commitment to the belief that it can be changed) becomes easier than “I must endure this intolerable situation.” In some cases, this can be posed straightforwardly as a choice of beliefs based on a sort of calculus – “I’m not promising we can win. But I promise that if we don’t fight then we definitely won’t win. We don’t know until we try. If we don’t try then we know we’ll lose, in the way we’re losing now.” Etc. (This latter only really works in the context of performative/experiential recounting of bad experiences as part of the process of agitation. The goal is to get people to narrate unpleasant experiences such that they have an emotional experience in the narration, which then is a tool for moving them to action.)
Another briefer thought – NP’s discussion reminded me that I’d been to post for a while on the normative framework(s) of marxism. In a nutshell, marxism involves normative claims. For instance, the protests against primitive accumulation in the last (and best) section of v1 of Capital are predicated on those actions being wrong, being reprehensible. I’m fine to leave the normative framework implied, whereas I suspect NP would want to make it explicit and fine tune it. Certainly my dear friend Colin would likely want to do so. That’s a fair impulse, though one I don’t really share. I think one of the questions bound up with what NP is working on is the degree to which these frameworks can and should be rendered fully consistent and recommendable. I’m skeptical of the recommendability of normative frameworks, that is,I think the criteria for recommendability rely on or imply a previous normative framework, so that the recommendability is always relative or partial or subject to questioning (as a possibility I mean). This is because there is no word of god to be revealed (where the revealed word of god would be that which is always assented to by any possible hearer). To my mind, enough subsidiary theories can always be sufficient to make any proposition believable and any action justifiable. This means that what we should be concerned about are _our_ frameworks, how well they serve our needs and how much they are succeeding (or not) in the world in relation to other frameworks – that is, in relation to others who hold to other frameworks – which are compatible and incompatible with our own in different ways (‘success’ and ‘compatibility’ judged according to our and not universal standards). I think I’m basically a Rortian here, despite his awful politics. I’m happy in this to rely on what are for me basically common sense and intuitive moral assumptions. I think marxism needs something like these, but should be made to function as a body of ideas which needs only the barest of these. That is, it should be normatively minimalist, so that the most variety of different positions can be accommodated within (can make use of) marxism. As long as they are communist positions. Just as in the workplace we don’t necessarily care (as in, we are not troubled over, we do care in the sense of ‘caring about the motivations of those we care about and feel for’) about the motivations for our co-workers in wanting to change the balance of power toward us and away from management, as long as everyone wants that and wants it enough to do the needed organizing work.