I’ll tell you one thing, it’s not what I ought to be writing about just now. But I have poor time management skills.

I just got around to reading the talk NP posted that she gave recently at a conference. Go read it. The talk is on Marx and NP’s larger project of writing on what she calls immanent reflexive critical theory (IRCT), defined I think as a critical theory which can account for its own origins within the contradictory reproduction of a society.

She starts out with a taxonomy that I like for its own sake. NP lays out five versions of critical theory which are not IRCT. NP doesn’t use all of these names, but I’ll call them performatively contradictory, functional, external, impossible-totality, and bigger-coathook. The performatively contradictory are those theories which are cryptonormative (NP takes the term from Habermas), which is to say, they express a claim about normative claims which should bar them from making other normative claims but they do so anyway. (A simplistic case: “All universal statements are wrong!”) Functional are those which reduce things to their role in a given society. External look for some sort of outside or remainder. Impossible-totality (which as NP points out are cousins to external) argue that alternative possibilities are ineliminable. Bigger coathook look to something larger to hang critical claims on, something which contains society, so to speak.

NP’s typology is more skillfully laid out than I do here, go read it. NP takes pains to stress that she is not setting these up to reject them for not being IRCT, but I still do get the sense from NP that there’s some specific good about IRCT lacking in these five types. My own tastes tend to run toward the external (as in appeals to some sort of common sense – an admittedly questionable category but one that I’m committed to – as a sort of “aww come on, let’s be honest, is it _really_ so surprising that X happens in Y circumstance?”; as well as suggesting that our present circumstance is only possible if we presume something which implies that other circumstances must also be possible), and to a lesser extent to the impossible-totality and the functional. The impossible-totality perspective I take less as a matter of positive assertion and more as a procedure, a sort of deflationary impulse like I mentioned in my last post.

For NP, IRCT is not a given, at least not for us. IRCT is a maybe, so to speak, in two senses. IRCT “involves an attempt (…) to provide an account of the genesis within collective practice of critical sensibilities.” And, for NP it’ s not at all clear that these attempts can succeed, for us today. NP sees “no reason to assume that a process of social reproduction should generate systematic and therefore theorisable potentials for an alternative organisation of collective life.”

I have some thoughts and questions about this. First, if IRCT is an attempt, then it seems to me that there’s really two types of theory here. One is AIRCT – Attempted AIRCT – and the other SIRCT – Successful IRCT. All SIRCT are AIRCT but not all AIRCT are SIRCT: some attempts fail. If not, then the language of attempt would be misplaced. (To be an attempt there must be a possibility of failure.) What about AIRCTs that fail? (FIRCT – Failed IRCT.) Presumably some FIRCTs mistake themselves for SIRCTs. Presumably some of these and other FIRCTs are or could be also one of the five above types of critical theory which are not IRCT. Right? It seems to me that NP is being charitable in saying that IRCT is an attempt. I think really, though, IRCTs must succeed to REALLY be IRCT. Only SIRCTs are really IRCTs. If I bake a cake but accidentally spill ground glass and cigarette butts in the batter then bake it at 700 degrees for 60 minutes, I have not actually baked a cake and the product of my activity is not really a cake. At least in one important sense. In another sense I could be said to have baked a cake, but that’s an expanded sense of “bake” and “cake.” Likewise if I produce what I take to be a SIRCT but I unknowingly make logical errors and/or factual errors at key points in the process such that my argument is compromised, I have not actually produced a SIRCT.

Second, while I very much like that NP says “attempt” and doesn’t presume all this is possible, I think the term “attempt” implies some criterion for success, which implies knowing what IRCT would look like. How would we get such a knowledge without a successful example of IRCT to derive said knowledge from? We might perhaps just reason our way there, but that doesn’t feel exactly satisfying… if we can just reason our way to a successful definition of IRCT such that we can tell a real attempt (an attempt with an actual shot at success) from a half-hearted attempt (an attempt which really doesn’t have a chance), or an attempt from a success, then it seems that IRCT could just be achieved by reasoning. If that’s the case, though, then where does the grounding withing collective practice bit come in? I’m not sure I’ve been clear here and I’m sure I can be any clearer, but it seems to me that this is tension around which metatheoretical questions will keep coming up. (Presumably the “account” given in IRCT is a theoretical account rather than a historical account, or rather than just some story about what the theory came from, right? Because this is an “account”: “a lot workers didn’t like their jobs and didn’t like that they had to have jobs so they wrote some stuff about that in order to explain to other people why they didn’t like it and they built some organizations and there was a lot of conflict and they made some improvements but not enough and some of those improvements have since been reversed; we’re trying to do the same thing today because we don’t like our jobs and we can draw on the material they left behind” but it’s not a theoretical one or a very good one.)

NP takes Marx’s work as an example of IRCT. I assume this means SIRCT, that Marx didn’t just attempt IRCT (and I assume that for NP Marx did not fail to produce IRCT). It strikes me that there are possible responses to this. First, if we say that Marx’s moment wasn’t all that different from our own then describing why Marx’s IRCT was possible is to explain why it’s possible now. That is to say, why is it “Marx produced IRCT” insufficient evidence for “IRCT is possible today”? (That is, if Marx produced IRCT why is IRCT “an open question” as NP insists – an insistence I like, by the way.) Second, if we say that Marx’s moment was a lot different from our own then we can’t just do the “describe Marx and we describe us” move, but I think this would need to be established. I take it that since NP says both (I think) “Marx produced IRCT” and “IRCT may not be possible today” that for NP there has been some shift between our time and Marx’s time such that the conditions of possibility for IRCT have changed. What is this shift? Third, how and why was Marx able to produce IRCT? Fourth, maybe time/epoch is a mistake, maybe “a process of social production” isn’t temporal so much as spacial or a matter of social-strata. That is, NP’s question is basically “can _we_ have IRCT” with the implication that “we” does not include Marx. That’s fair, but the implied definition of the “we” here isn’t clear to me.

NP writes that the turn away from IRCT among theory folk involved an aversion “to the notion that critical ideals should be grounded in ‘what is’,” which is one the one hand reasonable but on the other hand NP seems to suggest this was a mistake. It’s not clear what counts as being part of “what is”, though. Put maybe simplistically, I like to just point to historical examples – organizations like the heyday of the IWW and events like general strikes – and say “I mean something like that, only now, here.” I’m generally happy to leave the specifics of that kind of transposition implied (ie, not thought out clearly) rather than made explicit. The problems I’ve run into more often involve a failure to compellingly imagine (ie really believe in) such an event/organization rather than an ability to think it through. This connects to prior discussions w/ NP re: posts here and here and relates in a sense to some of the stuff in my last post which was all “yay for history!

I need to wrap this up and there’s much more I’d like to say but it’ll have to wait. For now, one final question. NP writes that ““historicising” forms of perception – whether or not they might also provide useful conceptual categories for understanding the contingency of certain aspects of human practice – tend to distract us endlessly into contestations over dimensions of our collective life that we intuitively grasp as social – thereby tending to deflect us from other forms of contestation that might be required, if capitalism is to be overcome.” I like this. I take this to mean that historicizing) is insufficient practice. (Is that right NP?) I assume this means that theoretical practice is insufficient practice (taking “historicizing forms of perception” as a type of theoretical practice), but there’s another possible interpretation, which is that another type of theoretical practice is (also) needed. It’s also not clear to me if the claim is that historicizing (and/or theory?) is insufficient or if historicizing is a sort of block in some cases – the phrases “tend to distract us endlessly” could suggest not only “more than historicize” (and/or theorize?) but also “sometimes historicizing is like a light that blinds us to some important things” which would mean not merely “insufficient” but actually harmful in some instance. That’s all for now.

Oh yeah, NP also has a post on chapter ten of Capital, check it out.