As I’ve said before, I recently made a disciplinary transition to history. Or rather, I’ve recently changed programs. I certainly don’t feel that I’m finished transitioning here at all, substantively. This is tough for me in a variety of ways, but really exciting. Along the way I find myself alternating between two responses to theoretical sort of work like I used to do (pretty much exclusively). On the one hand I find it more exciting than ever, and on the other I find it more exasperating than ever. Both responses are fed by my having more empirical evidence now (well, a little anyway), and both are mostly driven by how I’m feeling about what I’m currently doing. Part of getting excited about theory stuff again is wanting some level of ability to make credible claims – I know way more about certain parts of Marxist philosophy than I do about any of U.S. cultural history, for instance – and so reaching for what is still more familiar terrain; part of it is wanting to be able to do higher level work, so to speak – I’m still acquiring a lot of historical basics with history such that the work I can do there is going to be much less interesting for others etc. Part of getting exasperated with theory is feeding my interest in doing historical work, especially when it gets slow and tiresome.

One of the things I’m still sorting through is where my background in theoretical/philosophical material fits in with what I’m currently doing. I can’t identify them with any precision but there are moments/moves with the history stuff that feel a good deal like some of the philosophical moments/moves that I’ve liked for a very long time – deflationary moves, in a nutshell (a bit ironic maybe, that – summing up all this stuff into one category like that). I heard someone put it this way recently: literary folk tend to deconstruct things, historians contextualize things. I like that. I quite like negative historicizing arguments or historicizing as a mode of deflation. (I’m stuck for an example just now, sorry.) None of this is all that interesting, really, except for me in parsing my emotional life.

The above aside, this theory stuff is just intrinsically interesting, at least some of it, at least some of the time. As I said, I’m still sorting through how my various training (and more importantly, interests) line up. Or don’t. One thought I had recently is that among the uses of theory I think there are at least two basic ones.

One is rendering things unsurprising. Marxism does this in a way with employers’ behavior. Boss is extending your hours? Well that makes sense, we call that absolute surplus value. The boss is making you produce more in the same time? That’s relative surplus value. Etc. The theory makes things seem predictable. That isn’t to say it makes actual prediction possible, rather it makes established outcomes such that we might say of them “oh well this a predictable outcome,” in the sense of something which fits our general expectations of the world.

Another function is rendering things surprising. I don’t mean literally surprising but rather giving a sense of … “whoa!”, of awesomeness. I don’t know how to say this more clearly right now and again I’m stuck for an example.

The White Sox are doing well right now (at least so far, and I just saw that the Cubs lost to the Dodgers to which I can only say HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA), so let me try a baseball example. Someone familar with baseball should find things like pitching and catching and hitting balls very familiar – none of it’s very surprising, it’s the familiar stuff of a baseball game. There’s an effect that theory accomplishes along these lines. On the other hand, if we think about all the great many factors and actions and/or events which go into actually throwing or catching or hitting a ball, it’s a bit astounding in a way, so that one might look at an incident of these and just sort of … “whoa!”

Theory can help in both roles. At the same time, I don’t know that theory is required for either. Narration can produce the latter, and I think the former as well – for instance a narrative of all those great many factors which go into making a pitch or catch or hit vs a narrative of the great many and great regularity of occurrences of pitches and catches and hits….

Hmm. Got myself into a bit of a loop here.

In other news, this second Nasum record – holy crap. “I hate people” is I think one of my new favorite songs ever.


Okay so the Nasum thing was a sort aside-as-exit move: getting myself out of the post, breaking the “I’m thinking about this” kind of mood.


I had another thought. This Nasum song ends with the following:

“I hate people telling me what to do! I hate people telling me what to do! Fuck you!” twice.

Not real deep. Not real interesting.

That is, just read like that. But – for me anyway – the delivery with all of its trappings (the blast beats, the muted guitar, the punk/hardcore beat, the slower mosh part, the screamy vocals) makes it more than that. There’s a certain something there which isn’t in the propositional content. A certain contextual something, maybe (this is maybe not a very good use of ‘contextual’ here, I mean in the context of the song not in the context of its reception). The delivery is part of bringing the extra something – the … “whoa!” – to the words. This quality isn’t argued for. It’s conveyed in some other way.

Likewise with this same quality in other contexts, whether attributable to theory or narration (false dichotomy) or whatever. And likewise as well for the opposite – if the surprising quality is “whoa” maybe the unsurprising quality should be “meh” – this quality of finding something unsurprising, predictable-feeling is not conveyed by argument. It may be conveyed _with_ argument, but the affective state/reaction is undertermined by the argument (by the fact of there being an argument).

Okay for reals now, this post is over.


Except one final thing – I wonder if there are consistencies in the whoa vs meh balance, across disciplines or approaches or whatever? For instance I think arguments among historians (in and across subfields and/or methods) about agency and structure may be described as being in part about wanting the right balance of when we say whoa and when we say meh – the former is about agency and historical richness, the latter is about structure and simplicity of explanation?