Dec 8, 2009 Borromean Knots, OOO, and Social and Political Theory
from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects
For the last couple of years I have tried to draw attention to what I believe is a deleterious trend in Continental social and political theory. Occasionally I have referred to this as a focus on the “discursive”, on other occasions I have referred to it as a focus on the semiotic. In all instances, what I’ve been referring to is a focus on the Imaginary and the Symbolic to the exclusion of the “Real” (as I am using the terms here).
No one these days has a panoptic view of the world of theory.
Adorno, Marcuse, and Horkheimer ... lived between two worlds. Most of us today have not lived through something comparable so the social system comes to seem obvious and natural, without alternative. This gave them a special critical perspective. In a lot of respects, however, the nature of the current social system just seems obvious today and for that reason appears just.
As Bourdieu shows so well in his analysis of academia, each human practice has a tendency to interpret the world and all other human practices in terms of its own practice and the primary media with which it deals. Since those of us in the social sciences and humanities tend to deal with talk and texts, we naturally end up treating texts and talk as what is really real, ignoring the rest.
I think we face a situation very similar to the one Braudel describes with respect to the Enlightenment. In his analysis of the development of capitalism from the 14th century to the 18th century Braudal asks
“why, despite the fact that the idea were there (among Enlightenment thinkers like Hume, Spinoza, Rousseau, Voltaire, etc.), was change so slow to come? Why given that alternative models of governance were now available in the domain of political theory, and given that compelling critiques of reigning institutional structures had been put forward, were social relations so slow to change?”
To answer this question Braudal argues that we have to shift from the domain of the discursive or ideational, the domain of norms, ideologies, texts, beliefs, etc., and look at what he calls material history. His thesis is that it is the domain of material history that inhibits change. When Braudel refers to material history he is referring to the nuts and bolts of a society and how these nuts and bolts tend to perpetuate certain forms of social relations and social structure even when the discursive level has changed. These nuts and bolts refer to very concrete things that are not ideational or textual in character.
For example, we need to begin analyzing things like the availability of resources, how certain economic structures lock people into particular ways of life, whether or not alternative resources are available (as in the case of energy), where infrastructure like good and cheap communications technologies are readily available, how urban and suburban life tends to lock people into particular structures as a matter of necessity, and so on.
India, on the other hand, has many people. So raw demand for roads, buildings and other paraphernalia is never a problem. But Indians are poor, very poor. Ay, there’s the rub. Translating the raw demand into effective paying capability is a challenge and therefore the argument needs to be made emphatically that we should not rush into creating too much infrastructure which cannot be paid for. Ironically, delays and our bumbling approach may actually be helping us. Who ever thought that a little Indic tardiness and inefficiency may have a silver lining!