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.)
I think I have to come to NP’s defence here by pointing you to an exchange between her and me that may help at least to fill in some opf the blanks surrounding her declared critical stance regarding theories that emphasise intersubjectivity. The exchange begins (albeit after it began) around about here — though please note that the exchange takes place in the middle of another mostly unrelated debate about sociology and (post)structuralism.
If I understand NP right, then her critical stance (which I would share) should not be read as a rejection, i.e critical in the sense that theories of intersubjectivity are understood either as wrong or as misguided (if not downright dangerous, etc.). Rather, the point is simply that there is something else (other) going on here, something that theories of intersubjectivity either fail to capture or seem to want to ignore or marginalise.
Intersubjectivity is indeed a wonderful thing, one of the academy’s most prized accomplishments, and very much worth affirming and valuing — in certain contexts. The point of the critique of intersubjectivity (or the point at least of my openness to its questioning) is not to dismiss its worth, but to stress its status as an accomplishment and (therefore) as a value (Thus spake Zarathustra: “Evaluation is creation:hear it you creative men!”). As a matter of value, the affirmation of intersubjectivity is inevitably open to the plays of difference; and the appeal to intersubjectivity is always (potentially) a political move in the game of legitimation.
Now, it just so happens that I, too, prize “intersubjectivity”, or rather the particular techniques of communication, argument, analysis, etc., and the specific institutional forms (e.g. universities, academic genres) and practices (peer-reviewing, lecturing, self-government, etc.) that have produced a particular kind of subjectivity that is capable of aspiring to the goal of intersubjective agreement or communication. But it seems to me that appeals to intersubjectivity can’t help but function as an attempt to assert a ground without division (a presence prior to diferance) as the basis of thought, argument, knowledge, writing. And that, to me, is (potentially) problematic, even though communication as such is essentially impossible in the absence of any such appeal.
I’m aware, in other words, that my discourse has no sense whatsoever except insofar as it implicitly affirms (by presuming) its intersubjective intelligibility and insofar as it is conditioned by a whole range of existing (in the sense of “positive” or “historically produced”, as it were) techniques, practices and institutions that enable something like an intersubjective field or experience to arise in the first place. Even so, as Derrida might have said, “I do not believe that any neutrality is possible in this area”:
As Derrida remarked of this fact of (con)textuality, that does not in the slightest discredit the notion of intersubjectivity. But it does mean that “speak[ing] as objectively as possible [in order] to reach the intersubjective on the far shore of that attempt”, as you put it, isn’t always — i.e. necessarily and universally, across every imaginable context, e.g. including contexts “outside” the university, etc. — “the most humble and honest that we can” do (who is the “we” in that sentence, by the way? what gives you or any one of us the authority to speak on behalf of that we, let alone every that possible we that might be imagined?). It means, moreover, that we cannot necessarily trust our capacities for assessing the “sincerity”, “intersubjectivity”, etc. of a given discourse and use those assessments as the basis for judging whether such a discourse is worthy of response — a point with which anyone who remotely sympathises with Derrida’s work would surely agree, no?
Apologies for the lengthy (yet insufficiently elaborated and exemplified) comment. I hope it doesn’t come across as attacking, etc., which is certainly not my intention. Hopefully, though, it will help to justify the need to keep the question open, even in regards to what appear to be the very conditions of the work of questioning that we do.
PS I meant to say that I agree with much of what you’ve said above about “self-reflexivity”, particularly regarding the heightened distribution, nowadays, of the capacity to be “self-reflexive” and the use of that capacity to “justify” one’s actions (i.e. by displacing responsibility for those actions on to the conditions of one’s existence, etc.)
The thing is, just as I feel with regard to intersubjectivity, that fact that self-reflexivity can be recognised as having dubious value in certain contexts, that in itself seems to me no reason to doubt the value of self-reflexivity in any and every context. In the context of a kind of philosophy of the possibilities of critique, I think a certain form of self-reflexivity has great value, just as I think so for the value of intersubjectivity.
What’s at issue here is not the inherent value of intersubjectivity over that of self-reflexivity; it’s the question of what forms of each and in which contexts each might be worth affirming.
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Nice post. Without having read the Zizek or caught up on the critical theory blogs (aiiigh, they all post so _much!_) I might add that we should keep an eye on how power works in these encounters. “intersubjectivity,” where you recognize my subjectivity and I reciprocally recognize yours, seems to be between equals or between people with similar relationships to power, which the skinheads/Jets do not have in relation to the institutions (police, social workers, judges etc.).
It would seem that intersubjectivity is impossible in this relation as the institutions of order are attempting to construct these people as deviants, and the deviants are resisting this order by rejecting the premises on which the social institutions are based. In fact, you could go as far as to say the deviants need to be able to both articulate and ignore the dominant discourse in order to “prove” that they are _choosing_ resistance, choosing to reject the dominant, and not “deluded” in their actions. So I might agree with Zizek that the skinheads have to enact this pointless violence out of the sheer joy of it, or at least in order to remain defined as skinheads. I’ll let you know after reading it.
Choosing resistance that is ultimately a stupid way to resist is a major part of Hebdige’s arguments a la _Subculture of Style_, and a major theoretical/social justice problem. I haven’t got any answers; still letting it all simmer on the back burner of my mind.
As an aside, I really hope you’re watching that “pick-up artist” show on VH1. It seems right up your alley. Err, at least in terms of your interests in things like “the rules.”
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I responded to Rob over at The Valve, and also recommend that readers check out the posts and my comments at Rough Theory and Larval Subjects.
LS and NP are both incredibly productive, and I don’t know how they do it. It’s inspiring.
I couldn’t agree more about the problems created by disparities of power; in my comment at Larval Subjects, I tried to address the obvious disparity between analyst and patient, and the same goes for the Jets. I don’t particularly blame the Jets for behaving the way they do, and neither does West Side Story. The bottom line is that inequality (including unequal power) is intersubjective, not reflexive.
Do you ever feel torn about writers like Hebdige? With so many of these books, which work so hard to produce legitimate anthropological research about contemporary culture, I can’t shake the feeling that the writers still think that teenagers are stupid, that they don’t understand politics and radicalism, and that they’re still too concerned with making purchases and being cool. Something needs to be done to divorce cultural studies from the condescension of coffeehouse Marxism.
The great thing is that you can download The Pick-Up Artist from iTunes, so I’m not forced to tune in to VH1. It’s the guy Mystery from Neil Strauss’s The Game, about which more later. I love how VH1 bought right in to all of Mystery’s geeky magic show props and settings, including transitions done with violet smoke. I also love the running caption commentary: if a guy has an awkward part, the caption will immediately read “PRADEEP / Sucks at combing his hair.”
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wonderful post, as usual. I have nothing much to add except shallow thing:
like, I’ve read all those self-help books you listed when I was about 14 and they for sure had the opposite effect of what they espoused, except not as funny as Lenny Bruce. What is funny is thinking of you or your erudite ilk reading them, particularly The Rules.
All the same, you’ve got to admit you’re Dale Carnegie.
p.s. have you read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s The Bitch Rules? It ruins lives.
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All the same, you’ve got to admit you’re Dale Carnegie.
Apparently I never got around to saying how I really feel, which is that I love the idea of Carnegie being an English grad student if he were alive today.