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The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Jameson On Hunter: How Not to Criticize the Historicization of Theory

Posted by John Holbo on 06/14/08 at 10:00 AM

I’m reading a Critical Inquiry critical exchange between Ian Hunter and Frederic Jameson - a response to Hunter’s “History of Theory” piece from CI in 2006. Here’s an old post in which Sean McCann discussed it. I did, too, somewhere or other. And this Long Sunday thread sure got all hot and bothered.

Actually, I haven’t gotten to the Hunter yet. But consider this passage from Jameson’s “How Not To Historicize Theory”:

it is the depth model in general and all manner of hermeneutic practices that are Hunter’s targets here—the reduction, in other words, of facts and historical realities to concepts that have no empirical object, like society, culture, revolution, class, language, history, capitalism, and so on. This particular line of attack is enough to link Hunter to the traditional Anglo-American empiricism that theory set out to demolish in the first place, and indeed the words positive, empirical, and research are here everywhere valorized and emphasized. (566)

It took me three passes before it even occurred to me what Jameson is really saying here: namely, that society, culture, revolution, class, language, history and capitalism are clear examples of subjects that can’t be studied empirically. You can’t do ‘research’ on these subjects. Ergo, Hunter - who is interested in doing empirical research - must not be interested in these things. But obviously these are important things. Therefore, Hunter’s approach is wrong.

What clued me in was a line on the next page: “To such famous nominalistic pronouncements as “there is no such thing as society” and “the Palestinians don’t exist,” we should now presumably add the proposition that capitalism doesn’t exist either.” All this charged to Hunter’s account. But surely it is reasonable to draw a distinction between Tories and nominalists. Jameson is arguing that if you are an empiricist, let alone a positivist, you can’t believe in society. I imagine that would come as a surprise to Auguste Comte, who is generally considered the father of positivism and sociology. (There’s also the difficulty that Hunter isn’t a positivist, but that’s fairly small potatoes.)

It gets worse. One of the things that bothers Jameson the most is that Hunter says theory has an essentially Kantian streak. In his original piece Hunter quotes a passage from Husserl about the transcendental reduction and takes this move to be paradigmatic of a certain ‘theory stance’. Jameson complains:

The transcendental reduction as a symptom thus takes on a diagnostic function as well; it not only serves as the badge of the idealism of theorists and philosophers from Plotinus to Kant and down to our time but also more generally reveals behind idealism the conspiratorial program of religion as such and of Nietzsche’s evil ascetic priests. Before we measure the scope of this interesting indictment, however, it will be necessary to see how Hunter is able to include within it so many contemporary intellectuals and theorists, most of whom probably consider themselves to be materialists very much engaged in the real world of political realities and power relations of all kinds. Such people, engaged in revealing the deeper ideological meaning of various texts or revising the current narratives of historical events and developments, if not in elaborating new political and intellectual programs, will presumably be astonished to learn that theirs is a profoundly idealistic if not religious or mystical activity and, in any case, a form of reduction and sublimation rather than of concrete regrounding and demystification. But the word deeper is the giveaway, for it is the depth model ...

And now I’ve wrapped back where I started. The bit just quoted continues on to the bit I quoted above. I’ve reversed the order to underscore how Jameson surely proves Hunter’s point by insisting that his version of ‘materialism’ is a reduction of ‘the facts’ to non-empirical conditions of their possibility.  Jameson thinks he should not be considered a Kantian because he is concerned about power relations in society. But he thinks society and power are not empirical phenomena. These are (at best) quasi-transcendental categories. So it must be the case that the study of power relations in society is, broadly speaking, an idealistic, Kantian exercise. Obviously it is really more Hegel than Kant. But it comes to the same: Hegel is a kind of post-Kantian idealist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The point is: Jameson should just admit it.

In sum, Jameson is saying that it is unfair for Hunter to call him a Kantian idealist because, as an empiricist, Hunter cannot appreciate the deep truth of materialism - that is, the Kantian idealism that Jameson calls ‘materialism’.

I just don’t think there is an intellectual future in being an anti-idealist, anti-Kantian transcendental idealist Kantian materialist opposed to all manifestations of empiricism. You don’t even have a branch to sit down on long enough to saw it out from under you.

This Jameson stuff is, I’ll wager, emanating out from Marcuse, Reason and Revolution, although he doesn’t mention Marcuse by name in the piece.  But damnit Marcuse was confused about lots of things. And one of the things that he was at least a little bit clear on, if memory serves, is that the problem with positivism is not supposed to be that some concepts have no empirical objects but that no concepts do. Concepts are general, and all empirical particulars must be ... well, particular ... so you can’t leverage the former out of the latter. You are doomed to that whole perception without conception is blind problem. Standard post-Kantian point. So positivism is, allegedly, self-contradictory. It isn’t supposed to be that positivism has special problems with human categories like society, language, capitalism, etc. as opposed to rocks, trees, etc. So when Jameson uses phrases like ‘concepts with no empirical objects’ he is not even keeping his Hegel straight, I think. (I could be wrong about this last point.)

Oh, and one more thing. I know Jameson can’t really mean it about society being non-empirical. But he does say it. And his critique of Hunter depends on it. So it seems only fair to pick on it.


Comments

I find it astonishing that anyone can have a straight-faced philosophical discussion in which Kant, Plotinus and Hegel are invoked.

Oh hang on… litcrit right?  I’d better go and dig out my Freud and Marx.

By Jonathan M on 06/14/08 at 12:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Who’s got a straight face?

By John Holbo on 06/14/08 at 12:45 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Point :-)

By Jonathan M on 06/14/08 at 12:53 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All statements of Fredric Jameson ex cathedra are infallible in matters of theory and praxis.

By Adam Kotsko on 06/14/08 at 02:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The cathedra being, clearly, Critical Inquiry.

By Adam Kotsko on 06/14/08 at 02:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The problem with Jameson’s response is his innuendo that one has to commit to his preferred historical ontology--dialectical materialism--in order to be a true opponent of capitalism.  By that theory, the anti-theory polemics of leftists like, say, Noam Chomsky conceal a pro-business agenda, and non-Marxist opposition to capitalism is impossible or incoherent.

By Lee Konstantinou on 06/14/08 at 06:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Lee, I believe the divergent sales figures for Chomsky’s books and Jameson’s speak for themselves.

By Adam Kotsko on 06/14/08 at 11:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In his Origins of Postmodernity, which I can’t find on the moment, Perry Anderson has a killer quote from Jameson in which he reveals that his Utopian alternative to capitalism is central administration by Marxist experts. It’s not hard to figure out why Jameson’s popular appeal is slight.

EP Thompson’s anti-Althusserian Poverty of Theory is also good.

Althusser’s The Future Lasts a Long Time is a very accessible presentation of his mature thought and is highly recommended.

By John Emerson on 06/15/08 at 09:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I think you’re misreading Jameson.  You have to read the key clause—“the reduction, in other words, of facts and historical realities to concepts that have no empirical object, like society, culture, revolution, class, language, history, capitalism, and so on”—as indirect discourse.  Jameson is saying that this is what *Hunter* is saying; that is, Jameson states that, for Hunter, the problem with Theory is that it swallows up real historical bits and pieces in ideal concepts. 

Hunter argues that all theory is, at heart, idealist and religious.  I don’t think Jameson is saying that empiricists cannot believe in “society” or “capitalism” but rather that a certain nominalistic strain of empiricism refuses to move from atomized social phenomena to large-scale conceptual maps.  Jameson is not accusing all empiricism of this; rather, he shows how the idea of empiricism can be used as a scourge for any intellectual work that attempts to consider social phenomena holistically.

Jameson mounts this same critique when he writes about the New Historicism in *Postmodernism*.  He shows how a misguided notion of empiricism transformed historicism from an attempt to map large scale social transformations into a fixation on details, on bits, on anecdotes.

By on 06/15/08 at 10:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi Luther, at first I read it just the way you are suggesting. That is, he is sticking Hunter with this reduction of facts to non-empirical stuff charge. Because that seemed to make more sense. Then it didn’t fit with anything and I scratched my head and returned and started reading it my way. And, apart from the fact that it seems mad, it makes more sense of Jameson’s overall complaint about Hunter. The problem is that Jameson really ISN’T just saying empiricism is a scourge against holistic hermeneutics. He is saying something much stronger and stranger. And he most definitely isn’t accusing Hunter of reduction of empirical realities to non-empirical stuff. Because his accusation against Hunter is that he is a positivist.

Feel free to read the whole thing and tell me I’m wrong.

By John Holbo on 06/15/08 at 10:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

John: Can you give the citation in “Origins of Postmodernity” where Jameson talks about his preference for central administration by Marxist experts?  When I read the book a few years ago, I missed it.  Thanks.

By Lee Konstantinou on 06/15/08 at 01:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The book is packed away somewhere. Anderson’s book is short, almost a pamphlet, though Jameson is discussed throughout. Amazon Online reader doesn’t allow for book search.

By John Emerson on 06/15/08 at 03:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

GoogleBooks will let you search The Origins of Postmodernity, but you can view only so many pages before the search engine kicks you out.

By Miriam on 06/15/08 at 03:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, both the Jameson and the Hunter links are behind a firewall at Singapore U. Thanks. I found the Hunter through the other links and it was utterly vulgar, confused, and, er, more than a little reductive. More ethnocentric bigotry about clean, healthy Anglo-Saxon empiricists who’ve long since left any taint of metaphysics behind for secular Enlightenment, as opposed to those evil and obfuscatory continental metaphysicians clinging to the reactionary-authoritarian Catholic-absolutist dogmatism, (never mind that many, if not most, of the latter were Protestants, or even Jews, and Aufklaerers, to boot). And in tracing everything to Husserl, not only does he fail to grasp Husserl’s animating intentions, which give rise to the “epoche”, (and which, yes, pointed toward a foundationalist epistemology and an implicit historical teleology of rational theory), but he obscures the most basic point that the “Theory” that he impugns stems from a critique of Husserl and his transcendental-idealist turn, together with the foundationalism and teleology that it brings in train. It’s true that one could read into “Theory” in at least some of its branches a kind of ultra-transcendentalist “game”, insofar as conditions of possibility for unique, non-universal configurations, “singularities”, are being constructed, and transcendental paradoxes, whereby transcendental conditions are themselves rendered possible by contingent, material, and thus fundamentally empirical conditions, are played with. But the overall thrust is de-transcendentalizing, at most according specified conditions a “quasi-transcendental” status. The fact that the “epoche”, once opened, can not “finally” be closed not only spells the ruin of Husserlian epistemology, but also indicates the openness by which the nominal infinity of the empirical enters, but not as always historically the same and with a guarantee of a generalized uniformity. (Yes, this might effect our conception of the sciences, but not the fact of science itself, nor the possibility of empirical research, which itself is never simply empirical).

Since I can’t access Jameson’s response to Hunter, I can’t tell if it’s really as faulty as Prof. Holbo wishes to pretend. But, given how wide of the mark Hunter is, perhaps some latitude born of sheer frustration might be in order, in getting down to brass tacks and, er, some precision in actual interpretations. Luther does at least present something of what would be Jameson’s actual complaint against the self-insufficiency of an unreflective empiricism. I, for one, don’t see how something like “society” could be an empirical concept, which is not tantamout to claiming it thereby doesn’t exist. Probably the source of Jameson’s thinking is less Marcuse than Adorno’s article on “Society”, (which ends on the peculiarly Arendtish complaint that modernity is burdened by the excessive overgrowth of “society"). Specifying the exact boundary conditions for something like a society is notoriously difficult, not least because any such effort is already pervaded by (the “experience” of) the society of which it is a part and from which it occurs, which is to say, it is always already implicated in and determined by, or, perhaps better, conditioned and structurally constrained by, the society and its networks of practices and relations of which it forms a part. Still less would society be a “transcendent” object, like, er, God or Durkheim, which would be still worse. Nor does that mean that it is transcendentally constituted. (The whole thrust of Adorno is to break out of the illusion of constitutive subjectivity). None of this precludes the possibility of empirical investigations of social states-of-affairs and the gathering of social facts, but points to the limitations and contestable nature of such investigations, which are implicated in social conflicts and power-relations, which can not be pre-emptively settled through any value-neutral framework of “pure” facts, but involve normative as well as functional judgments that are themselves contestable. (And, yes, there is a distinction to be made between “human categories” and natural kinds, and it is the failure or inability of positivism to make such a distinction that is principly at stake in its Adornian stigmatization).

“I just don’t think there is an intellectual future in being an anti-idealist, anti-Kantian transcendental idealist Kantian materialist opposed to all manifestations of empiricism. You don’t even have a branch to sit down on long enough to saw it out from under you.”

Well, materialism vs. idealism is precisely a metaphysical aporia, which is to say, it’s best not to get entrapped on either horn of the dilemma. It’s never been entirely clear what Marx might have meant in proposing a dialectical materialism, or to what extent he actually managed to get free of Hegel and his conceptual-reflective conception of dialectics. But getting or twisting free of Hegel is still very much to the point, which is not the same thing as getting shut of him.

By on 06/15/08 at 04:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I don’t have access to the articles; your links take me to a sign-in page. 

But upon several re-readings of the first passage you quote, it seems clearer and clearer to me that Jameson is saying the following:

(a) Hunter attacks the depth model and hermeneutics

(b) Jameson gives us Hunter’s definition of the depth model as “the reduction, in other words, of facts and historical realities to concepts that have no empirical object, like society, culture, revolution, class, language, history, capitalism, and so on”

(c) Hunter’s critique of the depth model is part of an empiricist tradition that Theory itself tried to critique

So I don’t think Jameson himself argues that conceptual mapping terms like Society or Revolution don’t have an empirical reality.  In his writings on conceptual maps, Jameson makes it clear that the theorist must continually adapt the map to fit the shape of what is being mapped.  It’s a dialectic between phenomena and ideas.

Jameson isn’t accusing Hunter of reducing facts to concepts.  Jameson is clearly saying that for Hunter, the problem of Theory is that it reduces facts to concepts in a non-empirical way.  Jameson suggests that for Hunter, the moment the Theorist begins writing about Society or Revolution, s/he’s moved away from empirical research and has been swallowed by the black hole that is the Theoretical Concept. 

The flaw with Jameson’s paragraph seems to be a conflation of empiricism, nominalism, and positivism (’tho note that he never actually uses that last word).  But then again, many critics of Theory themselves conflated nominalism with empiricism, and Jameson makes this very point in *Postmodernism*, as the reaction against Theory ushered in the age of the disconnected, atomistic factoid/anecdote/datum.

By on 06/15/08 at 05:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

That’s ok, I find your confusions frustrating, too, john c. halasx. Let’s start here: Hunter accuses the theorists of being Kantian in that they accord certain conditions at least a quasi-transcendental status. (I make that point in my post as well.) You object that this is nonsense on the grounds that these figures accord these conditions at most a quasi-transcendental status. Now: explain to me how this is an objection rather than a concession that Hunter might be right?

You also seem to me to misunderstand Husserl’s place in the history of theory, but we can work up to that.

Luther, I grant you a) and c) but not b). I agree that what you say makes a certain internal sense. As I said, I started by reading it that way myself, but was forced back when it conflicted with the rest of the paper.

I think Jameson would repent the word ‘reduction’ but for the rest, trading in ‘facts’ for their non-empirical conditions of possibility - society, culture, language, etc. - is what Jameson advocates. You’ll just have to read the article (sorry it paywalled.)

Perhaps we can profitably shift onto the following plane. I have trouble with Jameson’s insistence that he is absolutely a materialist and absolutely not an empiricist. This makes sense if, by empiricist, you mean capital-E Empiricist or Positivist. You can be a materialist without bothering your head about certain theories of knowledge. (Most scientists are materialists in that sense.) But Jameson takes it further.

I think Jameson makes the same mistake john c. halasx makes, and which I note in my post. Let me just use john as an example. (Stand right here, john. Thank you.) john says “I, for one, don’t see how something like “society” could be an empirical concept.” Fine. That’s perfect. Next john says: “None of this precludes the possibility of empirical investigations of social states-of-affairs and the gathering of social facts, but points to the limitations and contestable nature of such investigations, which are implicated in social conflicts and power-relations, which can not be pre-emptively settled through any value-neutral framework of “pure” facts.” But this is equally true of ANY concept, pretty much. Rock, tree. Star, atom. So what john has is an argument that there are no empirical concepts. The concept of society is not special in this regard. The trouble with this is not just that, in Jameson’s case, it points to a certain Hegelian idealism. The trouble is also that philosophy you end up with sounds suspiciously like Quine’s critique of logical positivism. That is, it is perfectly consistent with empiricism, if you merely select to take it in THAT direction instead. This thing that john can’t conceive as an empirical concept is just what many (non-positivist) empiricists think a concept IS.

So you end up being a pure Hegelian with no argument against what the empiricists are saying. Which isn’t such a good thing.

By John Holbo on 06/15/08 at 09:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

As to the firewall: sorry, nothing I can do. You don’t need to go in through Singapore, obviously, but you’ve got to have institutional access.

By John Holbo on 06/15/08 at 09:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In case the above was too complicated to be clear, we might start here: it’s a mistake to suppose empiricism is inconsistent with holism. That is, to argue that empiricists must deny the reality of x if it is obvious that x must be understood holistically. At any rate, it is important to realize that empiricists don’t THINK they are debarred from being holists.

By John Holbo on 06/15/08 at 09:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s also the difficulty that Hunter isn’t a positivist

Of course Hunter’s a positivist—not in the Durkheimian or Comtean sense, to be sure, but most certainly in the Foucauldian sense. And regardless of how one reads Jameson’s remark, Hunter is most certainly critical of “the reduction, in other words, of facts and historical realities to concepts that have no empirical object, like society, culture, revolution, class, language, history, capitalism, and so on”.

I haven’t read Jameson’s response to Hunter, but I don’t have much faith that there’d be anything in it that would offer serious challenge to Hunter. Hunter’s argument has some truth to it, but—as is becoming increasingly the case with everything Hunter writes nowadays—the lack of restraint, the lack of what Hunter himself once referred to as “intellectual modesty” completely negates any value it might have. I can’t remember all the contestable moves Hunter makes, but one certainly had to do with his appalling reading of Derrida’s reading of Husserl, which Hunter cites as exemplary of the critical practice he proposes to theorise. The problem isn’t so much that Hunter gets Derrida completely wrong, but rather that in getting Derrida wrong he shows himself to be oblivious to the material specificity of the practices of reading and writing that are deployed in Derrida’s piece—practices which entail the “dismantling” of the kinds of ideal objects that Hunter would ordinarily want to historicise and empiricise.

I had been toying with the idea of writing a critique of Hunter’s piece for submission to CI, but decided against it—as if that journal would ever look outside its own editorial board for potential contributions!

By on 06/15/08 at 09:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But he’s not a positivist in the Comtean sense. So there’s a problem pinning metaphysical critiques of positivism to him. And those are the one’s Jameson offers. (When he’s not begging the question by arguing that Hunter’s approach won’t work, therefore is politically toxic. And nothing politically toxic can be it. Ergo Hunter’s approach won’t work.)

I actually agree that Hunter misreads Derrida on Husserl. And misreads Husserl too, to some extent. His quote from Husserl is non-representative - taken from “Crisis”.

But this I can’t go with: “... oblivious to the material specificity of the practices of reading and writing that are deployed in Derrida’s piece—practices which entail the “dismantling” of the kinds of ideal objects that Hunter would ordinarily want to historicise and empiricise.”

Well, yes. But there’s many a slip, as they say. If you don’t agree that Derrida has really dismantled those ideal objects ... or if you think he has only ‘dismantled’ them ...

Also, I agree that Hunter is writing a polemic. But if ‘lacking restraint’ is, per se, grounds for dismissal, then Jameson and Derrida are themselves out as well. Neither of them is ‘intellectually modest’, surely.

By John Holbo on 06/15/08 at 10:11 PM | Permanent link to this comment

John, I’m not in the least bit interested in dismissing Hunter. Indeed, at one point during my doctoral research, some of his early work woke me from my dogmatic slumber. It’s just that, having been awoken, I see nothing new in his subsequent work. And this is a problem because his more recent work is getting shriller, sloppier, and more sweeping, meaning that it’s far less likely to awaken others. Instead of “the history of theory”, I thoroughly recommend his “Setting Limits to Culture” and—albeit with critical faculties switched on—his “Humanities with Humanism” (ref details available on application).

And the significance of the point about Derrida has got nothing to do with whether Derrida actually has dismantled (or “dismantled") those ideal objects. Rather it’s evidence of the fact that Hunter won’t let an ideal unity (in the form of an idealised conception of “writing” and of “reading") get in the way of good polemic. Hunter’s prepared, in other words, to some very bad history in order to write his History of Theory.

By on 06/15/08 at 11:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"Hunter won’t let an ideal unity (in the form of an idealised conception of “writing” and of “reading") get in the way of good polemic.”

I guess I’m not getting it. Why SHOULD Hunter feel that an idealized conception of ‘writing’ and reading’ - which may or may not be a valid conception - should debar him from writing an anti-Derrida polemic?

I grant that Hunter is polemicizing somewhat, and this is historically hazardous. But you seem to be saying something more specific. What is it?

By John Holbo on 06/15/08 at 11:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Breaking News (well for me, anyway): Hunter has written a rejoinder (CI, Mar, 2008) which is so much better than the original piece — not so much sneering at theory and none of the misrepresentation of theory’s ethical demeanour that characterised the first piece. It makes a couple of hilarious cracks at Jameson’s expense too.

Why SHOULD Hunter feel that an idealized conception of ‘writing’ and reading’ - which may or may not be a valid conception - should debar him from writing an anti-Derrida polemic?

It’s been over a year since I read the piece, so I’m fuzzy on the details, and I’m trying to think of a way to answer that wouldn’t require me to spend hours doing so. I don’t have any answer as to why Hunter should feel anything at all, of course. But to the extent that he might value consistency, then he might feel concerned about the inconsistency of treating thinking as a historical activity but failing to treat reading and/or writing as historical activities.

This inconsistency is what enables him to read Derrida’s piece as though it were a faithful reproduction of Husserl.

By on 06/16/08 at 12:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m getting ready to read the Hunter myself. This post was a bit premature, hammered out in haste after reading only half the exchange.

Resuming our exchange. Why does treating reading and/or writing as historical activities require Hunter to adopt an idealized conception of them that he clearly thinks is mistaken? I really am not seeing the complaint. You seem to be saying that Hunter is obliged to be wrong, by his own lights. But that can’t possibly be it. I’m not understanding you.

Hunter doesn’t see Derrida as a faithful reproducer of Husserl. I think he sees him as an unfaithful reproducer of Husserl. A picture stood on its head is, in a sense, the same picture.

By John Holbo on 06/16/08 at 01:05 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Luther (above) is right.  Jameson is characterizing Hunter’s notion of the depth model as “the reduction, in other words, of facts and historical realities to concepts that have no empirical object, like society, culture, revolution, class, language, history, capitalism, and so on.”

John Holbo is right however that Jameson would also say that those concepts have no empirical object.  They are constructions or representations.  This does not mean that they are transcendental reductions.  Rather, for Jameson his claim emerges out of a Marxist theory of ideology.  Theory is a practice with material conditions that determine it.  Theory therefore produces concepts; it doesn’t find them in the world.  This is not Kantian or Hegelian, but Marxist.  Jameson is objecting (rightly) to Hunter’s assimilation of Marxism into idealist phenomenology.  The notion that historical materialism is not empiricism does not go back to Marcuse or Althusser, but, um, Marx.

By on 06/16/08 at 01:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Just to be clear about why I mentioned Marcuse, it’s because he has a particular bug in his ear about positivism in “Revolution and Rason”. Jameson seems to have a similar, highly specific, anti-positivist bug.

Adorno is, of course, another likely suspect.

I’m not going to insist on this, but Jameson sounds to me more pure Hegelian - as opposed to Marxist - than he would probably like.

As to whether Luther is right ... well, I’m started to be convinced.

By John Holbo on 06/16/08 at 02:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

We’ve got different readings of Hunter’s reading of Derrida’s reading of Husserl.

Not treating reading and/or writing as historical activities (i.e. treating them as a-historical) constructs them as ideal objects. Hunter’s strategy is to approach thinking as an historical activity; that’s what allows him to identify theory as a particular kind of spiritual exercise, rather than as part of the ongoing process of universal reason. He refuses, in other words, the idealised image of thought as the Hegelian Idea. Whether this refusal emerges from some commitment to problematising idealities wherever they are imagined, I don’t know, and so to that extent I don’t think Hunter is “obliged to be wrong”. However, it would not be inconsistent with Hunter’s move (and would therefore not amount to a polemical response to that move) if one were to similarly refuse any ideal status to reading and to writing (hence to interpretation), and if one were thereby to recognise the specific mode of interpretation at play in Derrida’s reading of Husserl.

My complaint with Hunter’s original piece is threefold: (1) Hunter gets Derrida wrong (IMO); (2) he couches his characterisation of the ethos of theory in the most cynical of terms; and (3) the mode of presentation (his tone, if you prefer) helps give the appearance that the historiographical attitude sits outside the play of historical forces, is not itself a kind of spiritual exercise and does not emerge a critical attitude towards the positive conceptions of society, etc., that define a version of historical inquiry that Hunter’s approach reacts against.

As I said, though, his rejoinder to Jameson negates all of these complaints insofar as he doesn’t even mention Derrida, he provides a much less hostile or cynical account of the ethos of theory, and he undertakes a potted genealogy of the historiographical approach he adopts. And the paper’s a whole lot less inflammatory and a whole lot more interesting for it.

By on 06/16/08 at 02:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m reading the Hunter now and I agree that it is better than the original piece itself. It’s quite good. I’ll probably post a follow-up about that rather than continuing to contribute to this thread.

“He refuses, in other words, the idealised image of thought as the Hegelian Idea. Whether this refusal emerges from some commitment to problematising idealities wherever they are imagined, I don’t know ...”

Surely Hunter would just say he is a small-e empiricist, fallibilist, historicist.

What ‘mode of interpretation at play in Derrida’s reading of Husserl’ do you see, which Hunter misses? I think you are right that he gets Derrida wrong in certain ways. But I don’t think it’s wrong to say that Derrida has a serious, Husserlian streak. And that there is a sense in which the passage from Husserl Hunter quotes (somewhat unrepresentative of Husserl himself, as it is) is evocative of a spirit of ‘breakthrough phenomena’ that is highly characteristic of Derrida’s rhetoric and thought as well.

By John Holbo on 06/16/08 at 03:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Oy vey! The Hunter piece was nonsense that got worse the further on I read into it, (which was what drew me on). I have no idea of his prior reputation, but the tossing in of Habermas and Chomsky into the general brew to be condemned as “Theory”, a.k.a. pomo “post-structuralism”, when usually they are considered as being as at antipodes to it, is sheer hackery. It read as if he was claiming that all of continental philosophy is no more than a repetition of Christian Wolff, (as if, say, Leibniz and Spinoza themselves were to be subsumed as mere scholasticism). At any rate, “quasi-transcendental” is precisely not the Kantian account of the transcendental. Hunter referenced a 1959 article by Derrida on Husserl as his key exhibit, to claim that the “epoche” was somehow self-certifying mysticism. Now it’s obvious that Husserl was important for Derrida’s thinking, and the same goes, maybe less obviously, for Foucault, but there was no acknowledgement that they come at Husserl from a post-Heideggerian situation, and that the issue of origins/first philosophy/the identity conditions of access to phenomena, (as with, Dasein being at once ontic and ontological), are precisely what is being problematicized, (which is to be a repudiated term, though I can recall clear proleptic warnings from Whitehead on how surface differences in philosophical arguments often conceal common presuppositions in their underlying problematics).  No, there must be a generalized empiricism that is somehow immune from any criticism or unearthing of a “metaphysics of presence” or such like, and that would underwrite a purely empirical historiography of ideas, as if history, whatever its projected outcome, didn’t involve transformations and new emergences in both social structures and understandings, in a relation between continuity and discontinuity, which can’t be gotten back behind. (That history is riddled with contingencies is scarcely a point to be held against the mode of thinking that is being “criticized”, but rather counts against any supposition of sheer empirical continuity in historical processes). But Hunter simply refuses to engage with his alleged “object” of criticism, which he claims at once does and does not “exist”. In fact, he seems to suppose, on the one hand, that ideas in the history of philosophy can simply supercede one another, as if that were not to beg the question as to whether sucession were necessarily improvement in validity, and, on the other, that ideas can be gotten back behind and adjudged independently from the standpoint of their “origin”. And he seems to presuppose that some sort of generalized empiricism and a historiography derived therefrom were free from any taint of metaphysics or any historicized projection, but competent thereby to criticize any reflexive criticism of the metaphysical tradition itself, which is really what is at issue. (And really, didn’t the work of Wittgenstein tell as fundamentally against the tradition of metaphysical thinking, as the self-mythification of thinking, as any Heidegger-derived thinking, without falling prey to the illusion of a self-sufficient, transparent empiricism as the actually metaphysical antipode to metaphysics?)

I’d have more to say about Prof. Holbo’s “eely slipperiness”, as to who is or is not or shouldn’t be “performative”, but I’m going to bed now.

By on 06/16/08 at 03:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Lear. O me, my heart, my rising heart! But down!

Fool. Cry to it, nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put ‘em i’ th’ paste alive. She knapp’d em o’ th’ coxcombs with a stick and cried ‘Down, wantons, down!’ ‘Twas her brother that, in pure kindness to his horse, buttered his hay.”

Like the cockney, john, I think your methods for dealing with eeliness - such as mine - have a tendency to moral indignance at the expense of correctness of basic approach. In short, you are misreading Hunter. (But you are right about the Chomsky bits. Those are bad.)

Let my just ask you this: why do you assume that Hunter is “falling prey to the illusion of a self-sufficient, transparent empiricism as the actual metaphysical antipode to metaphysics”? And if you do not simply assume it, what is the evidence?

By John Holbo on 06/16/08 at 04:14 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Hey john c. (if I may). Always a pleasure to read your take on these matters.

Your response is pretty close to my original response to Hunter’s first contribution to this series of papers. It’s sloppy and (self-defeatingly) misleading with regards to what’s really at stake here. The first piece reads, ironically, very much as a critique of “Theory”—in which case the conflation and reduction of just about everything under the sun to the status of “theory” is ridiculous. However, Jameson’s scornful account of Hunter as pro-business, neo-liberal pragmatist has prompted the latter’s redescription of the original project in far less inflammatory terms.

What’s at stake here is not a critique of critique but rather the identification of a particular kind of ethico-intellectual exercise. And Hunter’s rejoinder provides a much better sense of how his own project is implicated in an intellectual battle, so to speak.

John H., I’m sure Hunter would say he is a small-e empiricist, fallibilist, historicist, but this still begs the question of how the particular empirical object that he identifies as the theoretical-spiritual exercise was able to be identified, by him at this time, as such. Undoubtedly, in that form the question sounds very critico-theoretical, but the fact remains (as Hunter effectively acknowledges in the second piece) historiography is a discipline that has historical conditions, and what it is able to recognise, at any given time, as an object able to be historicised is contingent upon the specific set of techniques (which includes, btw, the deployment of concepts) available to the historiographer. Foucault has played a large part in expanding that set of techniques, and, as the latter’s Archaeology of Knowledge may testify, speculative critique played a large role in that expansion. What’s all this mean for Hunter? Not much if all he’s doing is charting the odd “history” whenever he happens to feel like it, but there’s a profound irony involved if his history of theory is aimed at painting Theory as something like a “wrong turn”.

To properly answer your question about Derrida’s reading of Husserl, I’d have to go back and re-read “G+S and Phenomenology”, but I recall when I read it after Hunter’s piece that I was struck by how “straight” Derrida’s reading of Husserl is in that piece. Hunter seems to want to treat that piece simultaneously as an account of and as an example of the transcendental reduction, but—surprisingly, given that it’s Derrida we’re talking about—I don’t think the piece is that complex. I’ll need to revisit this question, though, after re-reading the article in question. I’m also a bit thrown off by Jameson’s claim that Hunter cites Derrida “approvingly”, which makes me start to wonder if I have any idea at all what Hunter is trying to do with the discussion of Derrida (or indeed whether Hunter knows himself).

By on 06/16/08 at 04:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My point was just to say that the ground for Jameson’s mode of reading is a certain conception of historical materialism and it’s all very well to say that this “materialism” is really just Hegelian or Kantian, but I think one at least needs to address the problematic nature of historical materialism that Jameson is always at great pains to stress.  For Jameson theory is ideology, concepts are produced, etc. because the material conditions of production are always primary.  But the problem, of course, is then if you can’t have direct access to the material conditions through theory without reverting back to idealism, how does one proceed as a historical materialist reader of “texts”?  For Jameson this is the adventure of “theory” and for him it has takes on what he calls “interpretive strategies” that require provisional modes of historicization always engaged in a dialectical balancing act.  You may find this all very unsatisfactory but before assimilating Jameson to Kantian or Hegelian idealism or like Hunter, viewing “theory” as a “spiritual exercise” that leads back to Husserl, it seems one at least needs to tackle head on the Marxist mode of reading that Jameson is engaged in that is very insistently tied to capitalism and class divisions as the bottom line of a thinking that can never escape its conditions of production or have direct access to them.

By on 06/16/08 at 10:19 AM | Permanent link to this comment

morris, if the best evidence that Jameson isn’t a Kantian, broadly speaking, is that be believes we need to be engaged in criticism of “thinking that can never escape its conditions of production or have direct access to them” - well, then, I’ve got to say that it sounds rather post-Kantian to me.

By John Holbo on 06/16/08 at 10:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Post-Kantian =/= Kantian.

By Adam Kotsko on 06/16/08 at 10:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

OK, then change it to ‘Kantian, broadly speaking’.

By John Holbo on 06/16/08 at 10:44 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, I think that the objection to your characterization of Jameson as Kantian isn’t that Jameson has nothing in common with Kant, but that his Marxist approach can’t be reduced to Kantianism.  It does seem to be the case that virtually everyone in the continental tradition is Kantian in some sense, so calling Jameson Kantian “broadly speaking” doesn’t really add any new information. 

So calling Jameson Kantian is either overly reductive or trivial, depending on how close an identification to Kant you are intending.  (I suppose there could be a “sweet spot” where you are positing just enough Kantianism to spur comments like, “Huh, I never wouldn’t thought that of Jameson, but you’re right”—but based on comments here, you don’t seem to have hit that sweet spot.)

By Adam Kotsko on 06/16/08 at 10:57 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If that helps you, fine.  But the conditions of production are not Kantian noumena.  They are what Jameson would call History.

By on 06/16/08 at 11:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, thinking we need to be engaged in criticism of “thinking that can never escape its conditions of production or have direct access to them” is not exactly a trivially generic intellectual characteristic. It sounds kinda Kantian. I don’t think Jameson is a Kantian, in any narrow, orthodox sense. I think he’s a Hegelian. I think he’s more idealistic and Kantian than he takes himself to be. He is quite fiercely anti-Kantian, indignant against the implication that he has an idealist bone in his body, hence would deny that “virtually everyone in the continental tradition is Kantian in some sense”. Because he is part of that tradition. I just noted that it seems significant that morris, when he set out to describe a non-Kantian position for Jameson to occupy, ended up describing a Kantian-sounding position. I think it says something that you cannot describe Jameson’s position, briefly and accurately, without making him sound like Kant. OK?

By John Holbo on 06/16/08 at 11:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"They are what Jameson would call History.” And Jameson thinks History, in his sense, is quasi-transcendental. Close enough for government work, so far as I am concerned.

By John Holbo on 06/16/08 at 11:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Of course Jameson is Hegelian in some sense—he’s a Marxist!  And of course Hegel was very Kantian.  You’re still not adding any new information.  To say that Jameson’s project can be explained in formal terms eerily reminiscent of Kant does not get at the specific aspects of Kant’s thought that Jameson distances himself from. 

So what if Jameson is “Kantian” in a sense he doesn’t mention or object to?  The question is whether he’s Kantian in the sense of being an idealist, and if you want to demonstrate that, you need to do more work than simply showing that his project has strong formal affinities to Kant.  So again, until you do that work, calling Jameson a Kantian is either unfairly reductionist or trivial.

By Adam Kotsko on 06/16/08 at 11:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

To say that the mode of production or History are transcendentals for historical materialism should be rather obvious if by transcendental, you mean the conditions of possibility for thought.  But for Jameson these are not fixed concepts but ones continually recreated by theory to grasp dialectically the historical moment as well as the limits of and historicity of the concepts we use to do that analysis in the first place.  Historical materialism is not a get-out-of-idealism-free card and its goal is not to solve philosophical problems so much as to do away with philosophical solutions.  For Jameson we don’t get out of contradiction.

Maybe this is all fairly obvious, but from what I’ve read on this thread it seems important to point out that Jameson’s methodology is in a historical materialist tradition and if you want to claim that historical materialism is really just Kantian or Hegelian idealism, first you have to deal with the “historical” and “materialism” parts.

By on 06/16/08 at 02:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

While I think Hunter (and Holbo) are wrong about Theory and Jameson, I do think there’s a spark of truth here.  To put it dialectically: the danger of Theory is mysticism, while the danger of empiricism or positivism is atomism.  There is an impulse toward the sublime in theorists as different as Derrida, Lacan, Benjamin, and Barthes.  But as Jameson himself points out in his analysis of the new historicism, empirical historicism has an impulse to the atomistic and the synedochic, as every bit of data becomes of equal and identical significance (as signs of “history” or “culture").

Ironically, the toxic moments of both schools of thought is the night in which all cows are black, the I=I tautology.

By on 06/16/08 at 05:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Well, there is a strong connection not just in lineage, but in conceptual consequence between Kant’s critique of “transcendental illusion” and Marx’ critique of ideology, as both structurally “necessary” illusion and as providing the very means for its unveiling. There was a book by a Japanese economist excavating the connection a few years ago, though I can’t remember where I read the review.

Not having access to the Jameson, let alone the second Hunter, I can’t tell how adequate the rejoinder or the reformulation would be. But as for the first Hunter, how NOT to historicize (the history and criticism of ideas) strikes me as an apt characterization. Sheer empiricism is a “bad” infinity of endless particulars, and any effort to write a history, even an ever so empirical one, must be organized around some sort of synoptic conception, which may as well be termed a fiction, a construction, an ideal type, etc., to which there will always be empirical counter-instances. And it is as bootless to complain that such conceptions are imposed on the matter as to claim that they are simply to be found immanent in it, and to claim that the ideas of historical thinkers/actors simply correspond to or reflect the historical conditions from which they arise, as to claim that they do not arise from a fundamental need to respond to and struggle with those conditions. But finding an adequate mode of access to such history requires engaging with the specificity and consequential connections of such ideas, which means according them some conditional validity in terms of understanding the sorts of concerns to which they are addressed, however mistaken. The history of ideas can not be reduced to the empirical happenstance of their occurrence amidst a welter of contingent connections any more than ideas can be reduced to a singular figure of thought. At any rate, empiricism, (as distinct from empirical science), is not somehow a non-philosophy to be opposed to philosophical presumptions, as if a welter of small theories, suitably modest, would avoid the embarrassments of any broader theoretical claims and their conceptual consequentiality, as if the avowal of faillibility could somehow forestall the workings of falsifications. (Though I’m not adverse to the eschewal of theory. I don’t see why we would need little theories of everything to go about in the world, interpreting, inferring, etc. I don’t see in the first instance why we would need any theory of literature in order to read/interpret literary works, or how any such theory could substitute for the actual work of such activity). No, empiricism in its various guises is precisely a branch of Western philosophy, and is just as prone to being riddled with “metaphysical”, i.e. substantialist, conceptual sets and aporias, as other branches to which it would be opposed. And arguably, from at least some standpoints, empiricism could be construed as a species of idealism.

“Eely slipperiness” comes from the old LS thread where I found the Hunter pdf. It by no means refers to Prof. Holbo alone, but rather to some of the frustrations of these sorts of stand-off threads on “pomo”. Though from prior experience, as well, I will remark on his tendency to make a point that is a misprision, if not completely mistaken, and respond when countered with a certain amount of “pedagogical” bluster, bluff and hectoring, while slowly revising or retracting. But I must confess that I don’t see his point about empirical concepts, and how if some concepts are not empirical, (directly referential?), then none can be. He seems to be making a slippery Hegel move, even as he charges the self-same move to Hegel, insisting that every thinking that follows in his wake is eo ipso necessarily contaminated with his idealism, as if that were not precisely the problem and problematic that they were responding to. The point and problem is not new but quite old, and I might reference Karl Loewith’s history of the Left Hegelians to make the point. Anyone who wants to oppose Hegel’s totalizing objective idealist rationalism qua a “negative” philosophy of appearing “essence” must cite some positive existence to oppose to its encompassing claims. But to do so, they must “name”, identify, that existent, sensuous material need, individual existence, the infrastructure of material production, etc. and, in doing so, conceptualize what is to be counter-posed, which eo ipso becomes a concept and grist to be taken up into Hegel’s relentless conceptual-reflective dialectic, as always already having be conceived therein. But that can’t be right: the world is not tantamount or identical to (the possibility of) our conceiving it. But neither can we simply break out of our conceptual thinking to somehow unthinkingly access the world itself. What is to be counterposed to thinking and concepts in the world must somehow be marked within them. (Hegel did have a word for empirical concepts; he called them unsurprisingly “Vorstellungen”; but then he was mainly concerned with criticizing the limits of such “representational” thinking). Indeed, much of the history of post-Hegelian, a forteriori post-Kantian, continental philosophy could be seen as successive attempts to break away from that Hegelian trap, without ever quite getting shut of him. Husserl, for example, began with a strongly anti-Hegelian animus only to reproduce piece-meal significant chunks of Hegel. This is why the thinking of difference otherwise than as the “identity of identity and difference” has become such a pre-occupation in overwrought attempts to think the pre- and non-conceptual, (which, no, is not a matter of “Romanticism” and the opposition of poetry to science). ("I’ll show you the differences!") The anti-Hegelian, anti-dialectical animus of “post-structuralist Theory”, (which is already to be found in Benjamin and Heidegger), is only the latest permutation in the struggle against the Hegelian ghost. To claim that it has already failed in advance is to perversely re-enforce its point.

So I don’t see why distinctions can’t be made out between “empirical” concepts, whose contents have more or less direct referents and concepts without direct referents, (e.g. “truth"), least of all because Hegel would purport to say so and Hegel is wrong, (which is precisely slipperiness, though only half-way Hegel’s). Do natural kinds exist? I’d say the evidence is mixed. Are our words, meanings and concepts simply reflections of such natural kinds and all our meanings thereby “natural”. No. Not only do I not see how we could provide such a guarantee, but why we would feel the need for such a guarantee would be the more interesting topic for reflection. We make use of some bits of things to tap out and signify other bits of things. And we form meanings and concepts out of other meanings and concepts. That’s the whole point of “language games”, n’est ce pas? To show how out of certain “natural” givens in which our lives are necessarily anchored, more complexly structured and constituted meanings, activities and distinctions are constructed or built up into the weave of our form of life, which derive their rational justification not from any grounding in a prior, predetermined metaphysical “necessity”, but from their needfulness for the discriminations that sustain our form of life. (It’s no accident that PI ends up on that queer topic, “aspect blindness"). So it strikes me as fairly obvious that we engage in disputes and conflict over modes of social organization or political projects in ways that we don’t over rocks or trees, (or stars or atoms, which are scientifically constructed “objects” for which their are alternate venues for inquiry). Equally, to deny the possibility of constructing “non-empirical” concepts, such as “society”, that project beyond the immediately given and engage with and project futural and alternative possibilities and potentialities is to consign all thinking and activity to the reproduction of the status quo. That is not to say that such futural projections and possibilities will necessarily come about or that the future is in our grasp and will not disrupt and exceed our hopes and expectations. And there is no reason to accord such conceptions “quasi-transcendental” status, as a superfluous and fictitious guarantee, other than as provisionally constitutive of current inquiry and activity. But it is to say that it belongs to human “nature” to exist in terms of possibilities and potentials that project beyond currently given horizons, and that is all the more a collective than an individual reality. Not to make out such distinctions, because alternative or transformed states of the world, social relations and conceptions are imaginary and thereby a lapse into idealism, strikes me as obfuscation.

By on 06/16/08 at 06:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam K., since all I have been claiming is something you yourself grant as obvious, I think the most humane thing is for me is just pocket your own words as evidence that you and I agree I am right - whether I really am right or not - and move on to consider Hunter. Those words are: “It does seem to be the case that virtually everyone in the continental tradition is Kantian in some sense.” That’s all I’m saying.

john c. halasz, “Though from prior experience, as well, I will remark on his tendency to make a point that is a misprision, if not completely mistaken, and respond when countered with a certain amount of “pedagogical” bluster, bluff and hectoring, while slowly revising or retracting.”

I think you didn’t quite take the point of my little Lear lesson. The Londoner blames the eels for moving around in the pie, due to ignorance of the fact that he/she was supposed to kill them first. You blame me for putting up resistance even though I am completely mistaken. But in argument it is traditional to demonstrate the errors of others first, fulminate about those errors after. By skipping over step one, you risk an eely mess. What seems to you like bluff and bluster is just the unanticipated, eely head of inquiry rearing itself up.

“He seems to be making a slippery Hegel move, even as he charges the self-same move to Hegel ...” Well, yes. But who better to make a Hegelian move than Hegel, eh? I was only pointing out that Jameson, being a Hegelian, might be expected to make Hegelian moves.

I myself, as a holistic empiricist, will make many of the same moves, of course.

You write: “Are our words, meanings and concepts simply reflections of such natural kinds and all our meanings thereby “natural”. No. Not only do I not see how we could provide such a guarantee, but why we would feel the need for such a guarantee would be the more interesting topic for reflection.”

And:

“So it strikes me as fairly obvious that we engage in disputes and conflict over modes of social organization or political projects in ways that we don’t over rocks or trees, (or stars or atoms, which are scientifically constructed “objects” for which their are alternate venues for inquiry).”

You don’t think scientists are just another kind of people? You think categories like ‘star’ and even ‘rock’ are ‘immediately given’? I don’t.

Interestingly, “I’ll teach you differences” refers to class or status differences, in the play. It says, in effect: I’ll teach you to respect your betters.

Let me just say this, john. You are obviously a smart guy. But I’m a smart guy, too. If you roll into the thread and call me an idiot, I’m going to tickle your ribs a little. That’s just how it’s going to go. But I’m also willing to argue in a friendly sort of way. You just need to cut it out with the ‘this is wrong because it’s mistaken’ stuff.

I’ll try to respond more later to the Wittgenstein stuff. I think I’ll just start a Hunter thread in which to do it.

By John Holbo on 06/16/08 at 09:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just to be a bit clearer on the Adam K. front, there’s no point arguing degrees of ‘Kantianer than thou’ or ‘less Kantian than thou’ until it is clear what is really at stake. I think, for what I want to argue, the minimal point that Adam K. grants will do nicely. So I’ll try to do a follow-up in which I indicate why it matters.

By John Holbo on 06/16/08 at 10:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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