pragmatism lessons (was Hey Paul!)

Maureen Therese Anderson manders at
Fri Mar 26 16:57:51 PST 1999

Okay Paul,

Last quarter's crunch then left-brain rebellion have finally passed, and in anticipation of re-encountering your old post the coffee's extra strong. (though a good shot of Jameson's is probably what it needs.)

My straightaway question about your pragmatism addresses the little matter of your anti-theory rantings. What keeps getting me about your comments is that the more I unpacked what I'm getting at, the more you say the problem isn't what I'm saying, just that:

> There's no
>necessary relationship between them and PoMo theory. It's a HUGE
>mistake to think you need all that theoretical apparatus.

And yet Paul, don't you see? I wasn't the one going around invoking vast pomo apparatuses. You _project_ a "theory-dominated, fact-starved, [carp, carp, carp]...meta-narrative infatuation." So something about your pragmatism frequently brings that old Keynes quote to mind--the one about "practical men" who believe themselves exempt from intellectual influences in fact being slaves to unacknowledged theories. (Oh goodness! Is Keynes a benighted postmodernist too??) So I'd appreciate a clearer statement from you about "theory" and what role you think it plays in your pragmatism.

Next--system. You know I'd have probably just figured you one of Keynes' frenzy-distilling madmen by now, except that for every handful of rabid anti-pomo posts, you do go and post something really astute. For instance your capital-punishment post a while back was so pithy that I saved it: you were cautioning against a narrow focus on individual intentions/cases, because it how ot served to cloak larger structures they participate in:

[*Paul when he's Lovely*:] "Today's racism is largely sustained by this dualism. White privilege is structural and doesn't require anyone's intent -- at least for the most part. But it still has a multitude of devastating effects. The same is true of class oppression, gender oppression, you name it -- what's most damaging isn't intentional, it's structural. So, the point of calling the factory owner a murderer isn't to put him on trial or to sweep aside considerations of motive, etc. as you suppose. Rather, it's to dramatically expose this dualism.

It's like the Wobblies used to do. A man would run out into a public space and yell, "I"ve been robbed!" Everyone would immediately draw up around him, and he'd begin telling them how -- just like them -- he'd been robbed by the capitalist system. And he was absolutely right." [**End of Paul on a Good Day**]

So so nice: you stressed the importance of seeing the multi-leveled workings of larger system, implying how symbolic representations and social forms mutually form each other. I'd like to think that this is the real Paul, and that some rabid little gremlins with your password are posting all those anti-theory rants. Because the above insightfulness, whcih acknowledges some kind of system, implies more "theory" than you let on. (So you can keep your pat-on-head "just respond to what I've written. Pragmatism need not be made too complicated. It's better that way.")

Now actually I'm curious what you think of something like _Capital_. You know Marx used up an awful lot of ink for what's probably the most sustained reflection in modern thought on the relations between meaningful action, collective representations and social structure. How much of it is fluff? Can your pragmatist "purpose" short-cut that fatiguing climb that Marx mentioned in the preface to the French edition? (cf. Doug's recent post, and btw I remember seeing amazing statistics somewhere about the percentage of french workers of the period who did read _Capital_.)

If your pragmatism can avoid those steep paths while retaining Marx's insights, great. We'll go to the mountains and sing folksongs about you. But what's at issue here is how much of, say, Marx's notions of conscious action _within_ larger structures, is retained in what seems to me like praxis-lite pragmatism. So question two requests a statement on the relation between your brand of pragmatism and system (any kind of system: open, dialectical, messy, unstable, multiple, contradictory, etc.).

On to your brand of pragmatism:

>It's not "my brand" of pragmatism. Pragmatism says that one must
>evaluate meaning in terms of purpose. Purpose creates the epistemic
>context for meaning. Because there are an irreducible plurality of
>purposes, there are in irreducible plurality of meanings. Of course,
>there's also the purpose of reconciling such differences, but it's a
>purpose that must be carefully watched, so that it doesn't simply crush
>differences it can't honestly reconcile. James was very sensitive to
>existence of irreducible differences that can't be gotten rid of.

But that "purpose" is itself generated out of prior meanings reflecting larger sets of relations. So for bigger questions you can't just start with lists of isolated "purposes." You have to think about how they relate to each other and to larger structures. You did this in your capital punishment post. But in your gremlin posts, this is exactly what you deem unnecessary, insisting that if we trendy theorists would just attend more closely to the _particular_ purpose or details of the case (a tv show or whatever), rather than interpreting it all through our fact-starved pomo theory, we'd get it right.

For some "purposes," narrow specificity is fine. But not for others. For instance in the notorious Buffy post ("note to self: religion creepy"), I'd seen enough of Buffy to generalize in _some_ ways about how it cast "religion." After all, Buffy is a product of a society that even designates "religion" as a distinct sphere (separate from economics, politics, art, etc.). This "common sense" distinction was forged in the past several hundred years, and since the broader purpose of my post was precisely to point to some of the still-relevant social history bound up in that very forging, for _that_ purpose, my exposure to Buffy was adequate.

Of course as Buffy connoisseur, you could well bring out ways the show does destabilize or "rupture" some common sense aspects of religion. (Wherein the LBO pomo-brigade will put a gold-star on your head, because that's a rather pomo thing to do.) But the empirical facts you brought out (Willow dabbling in magic) did not contradict my larger point.

All of which makes me wonder if your empiricism/pragmatism is helpful even where it's supposed to shine brightest. Your decoder ring is supposed to be good at separating out different "purposes." But this should properly include separating out different _levels_ of purpose (unless you think everything is fragmented purposes, in which case--another pomo gold star). So next question: how does your decoder ring distinguish levels of purpose?

On to pragmatism and individualism. [Snippets of your gist:]

> Basically, I think
>it's mistaken to perform a simple reductionism to bourgoise
>individualism. I believe that individualism is present as polarity
>throughout all of human culture [...]
>As societies change, the ways in which individuals are embedded in them
>changes. But individuality and sociality always coexist, only in
>different forms.
>that individuation is ALWAYS and everywhere a part of human life, even
>as humans are always and everywhere social animals as well.

Big big disagreement here. You note that "individuals are embedded" in society in various ways, but you have not convinced me that you recognize the vastness of this qualification, and even your enframing seems to smuggle in inappropriate notions of enclosed individuals. For some purposes (e.g., understanding praxis in the modern West), your "polarity" is fine. But you're universalizing it.

Please listen up: in social analysis you cannot separate out culture/society from some abstract individual--even according to the bedrock "science" that you like. The final stages of our biological evolution occured well _after_ culture had begun, and culture has somatically molded us. Our human brain isn't even viable outside of culture, not just for physical survival, but for any kind of coherent existential being. There are lots of ontological and epistemological implications for this, that you're not alone in not attending to. (And what were you possibly thinking earlier today when you mentioned the presumably brute activities of hunters and gatherers??)

Now about your person/body's "polarity from society throughout all of human culture." The active body is life. And therefore yes, through the various ways life and embodiment have been culturally interpreted, all human societies have found the person/body, both living and dead, to be a compelling site for reflecting on the dynamic nature of the lived world.

But that's very different from there being a universal idea of a discrete psychic subject enveloped in a physical entity. Most societies haven't treated the individual body/person as an a priori unity, abstracted from its interactive relations. Cultural understandings often focus more on levels both above and below the discrete person/body. Many languages, for instnace, lack a word for the physical body as a singular, total entity, while having lots of words for body parts, sensory faculties and other discrete powers of interaction with the larger world which operate _through_ the body.

In the other direction, most have various concepts for plural sets of persons/bodies of the same type. These express larger experiences of self, and emphasize the collective nature of a person/body's powers, states and purposes. This often means that "physical" bodiliness doesn't stop at the boundaries of the individual. A widespread example is how certain kin relations invlove physical continuums whereby when one member falls ill, others also observe the sick person's dietary restrictions to prevent the proscribed food from being transmitted to the afflicted member. Likewise, intrusions of foreign substances into one person can extend to the larger social body.

Just to further complicate things, a body/person can "extend" differently, simultaneously, into different sorts of social bodies/selves. Historically in West African societies for instance, this involves complex descent structures, various gender and generational identifications, etc., all involving different behaviors, and often associated with various spiritual/physical elements of the person. To western methodological individualists, West African personhood has often seemed composite and unsynthesized, causing no end of analytical headaches. (And add to all this affinal, trade, and occupational relationships that frequently crossed linguistic and political boundaries, and the new "multiple personality postmodernity" you mentioned might seem a relaxing respite by comparison.)

The point isn't to cast less individualistic understandings of self/bodies in some new-agey pristine light. There are winners and losers everywhere, but you wouldn't recognize a lot of the winning and losing--the entities or their "purposes"--through your common sense individual purpose. As a matter of fact the western abstract "winner" (whose history seems linked to your approach), that autonomous individual freed of social bonds, has symbolized the ultimate social exclusion in places like West Africa. There it's been the unique status of outcasts and slaves.

I'm not just saying that your individualistic pragmatism is ill-suited to many contexts. I'm also wanting to draw out by contrast Mr. Bourgeois Man, who I think lurks in your common sense shadows. Because if you don't recognize him, then the level of critique you can serve up to capitalism will be more limited.

Take that western notion of freedom. That "autonomous man" arises with market society is a common enough observation in accounts of liberalism. But the implications for social analysis aren't recognized near enough. I think CP MacPherson's _Political Theory of Possessive Individualism_ is still classic in this regard. [And it's an easier read for undergraduates than Polanyi's GT, and especially fruitful with students who've already met Hobbes, Locke,, in some western civ. class.]

[Inadequate synopsis, and my last point, I promise:] MacPh. describes how notions of one's "person" as one's enclosed, exclusive property emerged as a metaphorizing from land and property as understood in the wake of the enclosure movements. (The latter which replaced the collective ownership of the open field system to individually owned enclosed parcels, and of course "freed" the dispossessed for wage labor.) The enclosed-units-as-individuals metaphor actually reflected the new property system as a phenomenological experience (e.g., a more individualized form of precariousness, thus a desire for exclusive right to shut off an increasingly threatening outside). As this notion/experience was internalized, it affected "common sense" notions of the individual, society, and their interrelation.

To complete the circle, these notions were projected back in time as existing naturally, prior to society. Hence the political philosophies of bounded, autonomous selves-as-property, who form social contracts to safeguard their exclusive property (which also existed "naturally"). These philosophies (or "cultural representations") themselves then come to function as part of what reproduces market society.

I draw out MacPh.'s argument because I think it addresses ways that your pragmatism might, like possessive individualism, cast as "natural" individuals and purposes what actually say more about the state of our own society. But in addition I thinkthe very structure of an interpretation like MacPh.'s might serve you better. It incorporates the insights of your purpose-centered pragmatism (as I have understood them), but extends them. It retains your priority of seeing purposeful action as a generating force, but it steps back and sees the purposes within broader dialectics of forms, represententations, value. As I said at the outset, you implicitly do this kind of analysis when you're thinking about Arianna Huffington and her charities, capital punishment, etc., but I don't see you incorporating it more broadly, as reflected in your gremlin mode. ...So c'mon, Paul, why not incorporate your narrow pragmatism into your own ocassional good sense? ("Let's put the reason BACK into Rosenberg!")

...I actually intended this post to focus on early mercantile encounters, and your comparison to Chinese mercantile empires (where you were still totally missing the point, btw), and the slave trade. That's the really interesting stuff that crucially broadens the picture. What MacPh. talks about is only one part of more complex double dialectics, and my whole point in those earlier posts was that European transformations were actually taking place on a global stage.

But I've hurled enough. Besides the coffee's long gone and I gotta leave.


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