Gee, Officer Krupke: Disillusionment with Reflexivity

(x-posted to The Valve)

(N.B. As I prepare simultaneously for a dissertation that will be grappling with the rise of self-help, and a post about sex and love, I find myself reading a number of fairly badly written books: How to Win Friends and Influence People, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and The Rules, as well as random web pages about sexuality and dating. It is, by comparison, almost restful to turn to the besetting problems of phenomenology and critique.)

Throughout this summer, there has been a wonderful, sprawling discussion between N. Pepperell and a host of other blogs about NP’s great theme, that of reflexivity (or, as NP calls it, self-reflexivity). A good road map for the discussion is here, at the Rough Theory site. From my point of view, reflexive critiques are not capable of doing what we want them to do; to understand what, exactly, it is we do want, we must turn to Stephen Sondheim and Slavoj Zizek.

The following two quotes go together so well that it’s surprising they haven’t been previously paired. They also get right to the heart of the trouble with reflexive analysis:

Dear kindly Judge, your Honor,
my parents treat me rough.
With all their marijuana,
they won’t give me a puff!
They didn’t want to have me,
But somehow I was had.
Leapin’ lizards! That’s why I’m so bad!
West Side Story

This “excessive” and “groundless” violence involves its own mode of knowledge, that of impotent cynical reflection – back to our example of Id-Evil, of a skinhead beating up foreigners: when really pressed for the reasons for his violence, and if capable of minimal theoretical reflection, he will suddenly start to talk like social workers, sociologists and social psychologists, quoting diminished social mobility, rising insecurity, the disintegration of paternal authority, the lack of maternal love in his early childhood… in short, he will provide a more or less precise psycho-sociological account of his acts so dear to enlightened liberals eager to “understand” the violent youth as a tragic victim of their social and familial conditions. The standard enlightened formula of the efficiency of the “critique of ideology” from Plato onwards (“they are doing it, because they do not know what they are doing,” i.e. knowledge is in itself liberating, when the erring subject reflects upon what he is doing, he will no longer be doing it) is here turned around: the violent skinhead “knows very well what he is doing, but he is nonetheless doing it.” The symbolically efficient knowledge embedded in the subject’s effective social praxis disintegrates into, on the one hand, excessive “irrational” violence with no ideologico-political foundation and, on the other hand, impotent external reflection that leaves the subject’s acts intact. In the guise of this cynicallly-impotent reflecting skinhead who, with an ironic smile, explains to the perplexed journalist the roots of his senselessly violent behavior, the enlightened tolerant multiculturalist bent on “understanding” forms of excessive violence gets his own message in its inverted, true form.
–Slavoj Zizek, “Some Politically Incorrect Reflections on Violence in France and Related Matters” (link here)

In my view, Zizek’s ultimate conclusion, that skinheads cause violence for the sheer joy of it, is a reactionary claim that separates human beings according to the irrational (but either good or bad) sources of their pleasure.

That said, Zizek’s critique of this sort of reflexivity is dead-on, if not exactly original. (Most modern crime films take pains to mock the notion that a deviant with a tough childhood is innocent of his crimes. There’s always another character who had it just as tough, but chose the high road.) If you look at all of Sondheim’s wonderful song “Gee, Officer Krupke!,” you find that the members of the Jets can easily re-frame their own experiences to win the maximum of sympathy from each successive “handler” — meanwhile, the handlers are having none of it, and instead use the Jets as pawns in a debate amongst themselves about human nature.

The Jets aren’t simply making fun of the notion of delinquency. They are genuinely confused about their own actions, and suspect that somebody educated has the answer, but meanwhile there is a fundamental and unresolvable problem: the Jets like their gang, and the people in authority don’t, regardless of what etiological theory is in play.

The fact that the Jets like being troublemakers is not actually a disproof of any theory another person might entertain about their crimes; it’s merely a disproof of the idea that a conversation can ever be so self-aware as to lack an unconscious element — here, a real and perpetually deferred dispute about desirable behavior — or that self-awareness is by itself sufficient to transform human beings or societies. In the case of psychoanalytic analyses, there is usually a hidden belief that consciousness is dissociative. In other words, if I come to understand what is causing my behavior, I will lose interest in repeating that behavior, and will assert my freedom and distance from the originating event. This is wrong twice over. First of all, if I become conscious of something, I am perfectly likely to claim it as my own, forever — as Jean Genet did when he said he would become what crime made of him, or as cigarette smokers do when they finally talk openly about being addicted to their smokes. Second, all of us make decisions based on past experiences. If we switch cell phone providers based on past experiences, and choose our leisure activities based on what we know we enjoy, why would we expect someone to change how they act on those same grounds?

Any glance around a social networking site (such as MySpace or Facebook or Friendster) will also confirm that people frequently speak and write about themselves in a seemingly confessional way in order to produce various rhetorical effects. For example, a college student on Facebook will “confess” to being a drunk in order to disarm acquaintances or in order to appear hedonistic. Others will confess to being “crazy” in order to appear spontaneous or unique. A famous example of this tactic is the person who, while interviewing for a job, confesses to being a perfectionist.

What is true of individuals is also true of societies: reflexive thinking is not necessarily emancipatory, and vice versa. Fundamentalists, traditionalists, and conservatives are quite aware of their obduracy, and are proud of it. When Karl Marx wrote that the contradictions within capitalism would eventually destroy it, he wasn’t writing a purely reflexive analysis. He was writing a historical analysis that used the transition from feudalism to capitalism as a model for the transition from capitalism to socialism.

Lots of people who strongly oppose radical action are aware of the costs of oppressive economic practice, and can speak volubly about the spread of disease, global warming, shortened life spans, uncontrolled population growth, urban sprawl, collapsing infrastructure, and so on. It’s not that they are unintelligent or uninformed; rather, they make a series of usually unconscious assumptions about human beings — what motivates them, what capacity they have for change, and what wealthy human beings deserve — that hold up against and even assimilate the most damning indictments of the status quo.

If you want people or societies to change, then you have to prove that change is both possible and desirable, to a quorum if not to everyone. That may be a highly reflexive process, or it may not, depending on the situation. Thus the critical process of argumentation and change happens intersubjectively.

The production of knowledge without any specific expectation of change also happens intersubjectively. N. Pepperell takes a strong stand against theories that emphasize intersubjectivity. In a comment to this post, she writes:

I am specifically critical of attempts to centre critical theory on analyses of intersubjectivity – and of the tendency to equate “the social” with “the intersubjective”. Realising that this won’t mean much at this point, my position would be that central dimensions of contemporary society – dimensions that are important for understanding shapes of consciousness, patterns of social reproduction, and potentials for transformations – simply won’t be captured adequately by the attempt to transcend the limitations of theories of the “subject” via theories of the intersubjective constitution of meaning.

If I had to venture a guess, I would guess that NP’s problem with theories of intersubjectivity is that they don’t provide a consistent methodological framework, and don’t take into account the phenomenology (and relevant ideological structures) of our encounters with objects. I can’t be sure because I don’t know exactly what she means by the “central dimensions of contemporary society.”

In the sciences, the scientific method is certainly intersubjective, but also consistent: it is an agreed-upon method for producing uniform and objective results. It is true that scientists do not always peer closely into the motivating forces behind the scientific method, and it is also true that psychological and historical analyses of the scientific method have not altered it. If a scientist were to write not only a description of her method, but also a full account of the historical, cultural, and personal factors condensed in an experiment, the analytic question would still not disappear. It would merely become different: “Why these details? Why this confession?” Anthropologists who live amongst their subjects, rather than surveilling or interviewing them, are not necessarily more knowledgeable anthropologists. They are simply creating a different, and possibly less hostile, “clearing” (Martin Heidegger’s term, from the Greek aletheia) in the name of knowledge.

Objects and perceptions are not intersubjective, of course, but statements about objects are since they happen through language.

Similarly, essays written by Derrideans that attempt, mid-stream, to partially or wholly deconstruct themselves by noting slippages and so forth are not exactly wasting our time, but are nonetheless like the party animal on Facebook who ponies up with a glamorous confession. It only means that the invisible foundations of the text are elsewhere.

The most humble and honest that we can be, as speakers, is to speak as objectively as possible and to reach the intersubjective on the far shore of that attempt. If I explain exactly what I know, how I came to understand it, and why I wanted to know it in the first place, without once speaking the dead language of the impersonated Other (as the Jets do in their song), then I give my interlocutor the opportunity to be a true partner with me, making observations about the thing and about myself that I could not possibly have reached. Those observations do not escape the contingent field of intersubjectivity; if they did, the Other would have the authority of God. But they are something new: a spark of conversation, a beginning.

(Update: it occurs to me that Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh is one of the most poignant and devastating investigations into reflexive speech. The lucidity of self-reflection, which is contrasted with the haze of nights at the saloon, is actually so dispiriting and useless that it produces murder, suicide, and bleak depression.)