Sunday, October 30, 2005

[In case you thought I'd forgotten, here's the remainder of my rejoinder -- which is partly to Jane's response to an earlier post, partly to his original poetics post [which, jeez, you should know how to find by now if you care about this at all, but here], but mostly to nothing at all but my own worries about what one has to take on board in order to be a marxistian [can we go with "Marxalia," on this model?] which I freely admit are not specifically relevant to Jane's argument -- or perhaps, to poetics. After this post, we'll try to lighten up again around here.]

I don't think I'm exactly spooked by the ism-that-must-not-be-named, though Jane right that it's symptomatic of something that I am as prone to anyone to get distracted by its looming presence. And he's also right that little or nothing in the way of concrete economic or political theses/prescriptions need be accepted for his central argument to get off the ground. But if so, the argument does not have such a terribly controversial conclusion (so I'd have thought). One would have to take not just the existence but the efficacy of the transcendental more seriously than most parties to the discussion would be willing to do in their more sober moments to deny that what emerges emerges from history. (Why, that's just common sense!) My earlier thought was just that this is still to use "history," materialism, or both to make only a negative point, re (in this case) the poetic tendency at issue; what I might propose (though it was not what I was thinking at the time) is that giving one or another positive explanatory account of what all that Judeo-Christian language "really is" is exactly where more powerful (and thus controversial) conceptual engines, some of which are stamped "Marxist," are going to start revving. (Even Jordan's suggestion could be handled: Consider what it is that "Satanism" is standing in for in both metal and Mekon iconography.)

But, that said, and this is today's jumping-off point, I do think it possible that Jane slightly underestimates the neutrality of his premises. Minor instance -- "acting on the present to change it is the name of politics." (7.0). At best, this formulation is a "name" (I take it this means something like definition) of politics. But, on the formulation given here, it could also be a name of, oh, aerodynamics (see below). Surely not any dynamic endeavor counts as politics -- on most of the formulations I'm familiar with, the political sphere is essentially tied to one's involvement with other people. In fact, I thought the "name" of politics was something like: the sphere of theoretical and practical endeavors concerned with how to live together. But this is really beside the point -- other definitions of politics (you can look them up yourselves) seem to emphasize terms like "government" on the one hand, and "power" on the other. My point is just -- well yes, have a dynamic view of the political by all means, but note that is a view, not an truth of analysis you get for free.

But as I said, this is minor, and perhaps merely verbal. More interesting, perhaps, is the citation of the slogan "We only know one science, the science of history" (5.2). If the allusion to science is a rhetorical flourish (as I think it was not for Marx), so be it, excuse me and skip the rest. But, if the consequence of that formulation is, for example, that a certain mode of explanation constitutes a scientific theory for explaining and predicting historical events (qua changes in the way we humanly recognize and characterize these events, not under some unlikely reductive description via physical or biological categories), there is a bit of room for feeling nervous, however obscurely. For, I think, there is some reason to doubt that what's on offer could be a scientific theory. This, for me, is not because it quantifies over something other than, say, elementary particles; but simply because it recognizes, and operates in the space of, agents acting for reasons, the fulfillment of ends, and so on, as does the "theory" of everyday psychological (belief-desire) explanation. The very characterization of the sort of "events" either theory wishes to talk about presupposes this. And the key terms here -- "reasons," "ends" -- are notoriously resistant to being brought under the umbrella of "event causation" of a sort that leads -- where applicable -- to determinism. (And this is not changed by the idea that actually motivating reasons are opaque; psychoanalysis is a theory of the same kind as those at issue here.) I seriously think that the question of whether this can in principle be done -- whether by historical materialism or Churchland's "neurophilosophy" -- is at least a meaningful philosophical problem, and those whom it worries are not to be easily bought off by promissory notes. Or even more weakly: one should not be shocked by the fact that the change in self-understanding required to accept the claim would produce resistance on some fronts -- especially before the required nomological generalizations (laws, in the non-political sense) are before us.

Look, I don't get the sense that Jane is, in fact, a historical determinist, though he does have leanings that way when technology is at issue. (Though have a look in the comment box.) But I do think that when one moves from the notion of historical explanation to a "science of history," one is nudged in this direction, with questionable payoff.

Just to take some of this from a different angle, consider this later post. Jane treats a Slate columnist's disparagement of the view "that neat theories not only reflect the world but can change it as well, and in ways that can be precisely measured," with bottomless sarcasm: "Perhaps this assumption is indeed always mistaken, though numerous aeronautic engineers, say, would disagree." Yes: But surely one would have to be only a touch more charitable to the author to imagine that he had in mind "neat theories that take as their object persons and their actions." [And, if one wanted to be so charitable as to not accuse anyone who crosses one's path of bourgeois individualism, one might also imagine that to be a "person" is, in part, to enter into social relations.] If he was so read, would the complaint that Kramer simply missed the possibility that "Schelling's theory sucked" seem quite as inarguable? (Sorry to be recherche here -- if you're trying to follow this, it doesn't matter for what I'm getting at right this sec what the content of "Schelling's theory" is.) Anyway, note that the fact that aeronautics is a good predictive theory for certain kinds of entities -- including human beings, conceived merely as their bodies -- can only be a piece of inductive evidence that the theory "reflects the world," not a proof of that claim; in fact, the laws of any "special" scientific theory (that is, any short of one supplying the complete description of the physical world) are notable for not quite reflecting that world -- as we see from the fact that such laws implicitly bear ceteris paribus ("everything else being equal") clauses. The questions this raises -- e.g.if a law admits of arbitrarily many exceptions (depending on how many ways there are of all things not being equal), how is it that they have content at all? -- have been minor industries in mainstream philosophy of science; the salient point here is that it is not at all obvious that generalizations about psychology and the social sciences can rarely (if ever) be stated in an exceptionless manner for only the same reasons that this is the case generalizations about the physics of middle-sized dry goods. Why can't they? The answer I seem to be arguing for here has to do with the reasons/causes distinction bruited above; to repeat myself, notions like reasons and ends -- and the whole apparatus by which we make human and historical events intelligible to ourselves, individually and collectively -- are not the notions appropriate to a predictive theory of event causation.

To sum up: This does not mean that Marxism is a load of hooey insofar as it is not a science. (It comes close to being the former insofar as it interprets itself as the latter.) To the contrary, it is most utile, not to mention plausible, in just those forms which do not have pretenses of scientism (and, especially, determinism). It is an explanatory theory, a powerful framework of interpretation, a meaningful contributor to our project of self-understanding -- and, importantly, an improvement on many versions of that project, precisely in positing that social relations have at least as much bearing on individual wills as vice versa, and perhaps even that the former precede the latter in (if I may) explanatory or logical space. But in so far as it is more, I can only interpret it as (a) a normative and prescriptive theory, rather than a predictive one, and (b) a form of humanism, both because of the notions it must employ to recognizably describe what it takes itself to describe, and because of the nature of its prescriptive aims. A Marxism that claims to be an "anti-humanism" is, I admit, very hard for me to get my head around; but I strongly suspect that, even if I knew what I was talking about, I would plump for E.P. Thompson against Althusser (whatever the usefulness of particular Althusserian notions).

And maybe Jane would too; the foregoing is admittedly a lot to spin out from one passing reference to "the science of history." As I think I already said: (a) This post is not "against" Jane, It's just an attempt to get at something the original post and ensuing conversation got me thinking about, and (b) I'm not certain what it has to do with poetry in particular, except in leading me to pose a very broad question: Does poetic agency raise problems not raised by agency in general, and if so, what are they?

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