Thinking again

How can we comprehend the vast changes that we now face? Some thoughts on theoretical limits and the new social constellations.

Opening the first page of Henri Lefebvre's Introduction to Modernity, written between 1959 and 1961, I was faced with what seemed like a pertinent passage from the writings of Nietzsche:

‘We are more free than ever before to look around in all directions; nowhere do we perceive any limits. We have the advantage of feeling an immense space around us - but also an immense void’

Perhaps we can relate to this sentiment - although we might equally look around and see only limits.

As the pause button of social life is tentatively unpressed, it raises questions about how to understand the limits, spaces and voids with which we are now confronted.

Reflecting back on the problems of writing at the moment and provoked by a small parcel of books from Verso, I've been turning over a bit of a grand question: how can the suddenly and drastically changing social world be grasped? In a previous piece I started to reflect on how society, as an object of study, was not going to be the same when we returned to it. Given the scale of that task, I've ended up wondering what will be needed to comprehend the new social constellations that will fall into place. In turn, I'm afraid, that left me a with second and equally grand question: what is it to write with ambition?

As I read through Yuk Hui’s labyrinthine new book Recursivity and Contingency, this question of writing ambition keeps coming back to me. It's not the first time it has come up in the last month. As I worked through Louis Althusser’s On Ideology I found it in there. And my other current reading, Gillian Rose's Hegel Contra Sociology, seems to be hinting at the same question too. Given it's opening pages, I can now add Lefebvre's book on modernity to the list. All four texts are difficult, panoramic and challenging. They all try to open up new spaces - they all seek out conceptual pathways and take risks along the way.

When it comes to trying to understand what is happening and what will emerge, perhaps it is this kind of theoretical abandon and ambitious writing that will be needed. Understanding the changes might need us to rethink or even radically overhaul familiar ideas about the way society operates. The domain assumptions that are relied upon by the social sciences may need to be challenged and unsettled.

I’m not sure why this question of writing ambition felt so central to my reading of these books. The circumstances could be shaping my reading perhaps - it’s a time of questions and questioning. Or perhaps there is something material that these texts share. They each pose questions about style and form as well as content. There is ambition in the way they pursue and explore ideas.

There is an inevitable tension in ambitious theoretical writing; pushing at the edges creates difficulties. The harder moments are inevitably very hard. In Hui's book, the writing moves in waves, periodically taking greater shape and at other times spreading into something more diffuse. Comprehending a book of theoretical ambition is nearly always a form of translation; a gentle struggle to try to turn the text into something amenable. When writing at the limits, things are being stretched, shapes are being contorted. Sometimes the product of this formlessness might be ambiguous or even unsure.

Such work can also require a kind of contingency (which is incidentally one of the two key themes in Hui's book). This passage from an interview with Foucault (previously discussed here) captures this type of contingent thinking:

‘My work takes place between unfinished abutments and anticipatory strings of dots. I like to open up a space of research, try it out, and then if it doesn't work, try again somewhere else. On many points…I am still working and don't yet know whether I am going to get anywhere. What I say ought to be taken as ‘propositions', ‘game openings' where those who are interested are invited to join in.’

Foucault talks of his writing in terms of connecting the dots and opening spaces in which the reader can join in. He also notes here how he tries things out to see if they will work, whilst being unsure if they will. Foucault foregrounds the contingency required to forge these propositions about the world.

The tensions that arise with ambitious theory are often a product of the type of conceptual uncertainty that Foucault pointed at. In some ways this is a tension between writing on one hand and theory on the other. To put this in Georg Simmel's terminology, this could be seen as parallel to the tension between life (the theory) and form (the writing). What is great about Yuk Hui’s book, to use it as an example, is the way that it pushes at what is conceptually possible - focusing on technological systems it challenges conceptions of cause and origin. Hui stretches and probes at the questions around cybernetics and technical systems, seeking to question existing perspectives on how they operate. Hui’s book actively avoids reiterating what is already there and drives outwards into difficult terrain. The recursivity of systems is a central concept in Hui's book, which makes me wonder if the pages have also been used by the author to try to break or disrupt the locked patterns of recursivity in social and media theory.

Writing with ambition can come with a price. In Hui's case, the result is a difficult but revealing read. The theoretical demands of the text call for close and careful reading, but it leaves some uncertainty too. Making the most of texts like these by Rose, Althusser or Hui is to accept the theoretical ambition whatever difficulties it might bring. The possibilities are often well worth the tensions. 

Gillian Rose’s Hegel Contra Sociology speaks to the need to rethink the origins and foundations of social knowledge. For instance, with a forensic eye for the underpinning properties of ideas, Rose argued that:

‘The neo-Kantian paradigm of validity and values founded two kinds of ‘socio-logy’, two logics of the social: a logic of constitutive principles for the sociology based on the priority of validity, and a logic of regulative postulates for the sociology based on the priority of values. The former identifies social reality by a critique of consciousness; the latter locates social reality within the realm of consciousness and its oppositions. It is the logic which grants priority to values, which is known, strictly speaking, as ‘sociology’.

What Rose is trying to do here is to show how the relations between two founding concepts (value and validity) have shaped the direction that sociology has taken. It was the prioritisation of values that became a central and defining focus within sociology. Rose notes how apparently very different forms of social theory actually shared underpinning principles. Rose goes on to discuss the implications of this prioritisation of values and how it can be found to unite what appear to be very different forms of social analysis. We can put that to one side for the moment, what I simply want to point out here is how this type of critical appraisal of established and underpinning dynamics is perhaps representative of the sort of questioning that could be used to see the mutating social world anew. Implicitly, Rose's statement also pushes us to wonder what a sociology that prioritises validity would look like, and if it would still even be sociology.

Sharing a focus on the underpinning dynamics of knowledge, Gurminder Bhambra’s brilliant Connected Sociologies looks at how dominant accounts ‘reinforce particular sets of concepts as central to the understanding of modernity’. As such, particular concepts solidify and become both a product and an integral part of dominant understandings of the social (and of sociology). The task Bhambra sets out is the ‘displacement and reformulation of those concepts’. The crucial thing here is the argument that it is the narratives that inform and therefore shape sociological concepts that needs critical attention. For Bhambra, these narratives need to be addressed in order for those concepts to be challenged, changed or be replaced. As such, the conceptual limits to thinking are reinforced by the way that the social has been understood.

In his late writings, Georg Simmel was concerned with how life breaks through boundaries and limits. He discussed knowledge in these terms too. He reflected on how knowledge can sometimes break its constraints. Simmel suggested that we can only really see the limits of our understandings once on the other side. He talked about how technology was one means by which perspective could alter, leading to such breaches in the limits of knowledge. Simmel also thought that there were other ways to think beyond the constraints of knowledge, provided that a new viewpoint can be found. That was why, at around the same time, he found such reward in Rembrandt's portraits. Those paintings gave Simmel one of those alternative viewpoints from which to think and theorise.

The challenge faced today shares some very broad properties with the one that Simmel faced. He was also trying to understand continuity and change at a time of upheaval and uncertainty. To tackle this Simmel sought theoretical openness and explored the possibilities of an alternative view of life.

To create new perspectives and understand the seemingly vast changes, we might need to follow Hannah Arendt's suggestion of ‘thinking without a bannister’. The changes are looking too significant to imagine that we can simply stick rather than twist. Established theories and concepts may feel comfortable, and they may sometimes still function, but I wonder if an over-reliance on them might lead to things being missed. A time of questions calls for thinking and writing with ambition. Apologies, again, if that does sound too grand.