philosophy as not philosophy: para-ontology, hauntology, schizoanalysis

"Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was’. It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to hold fast that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to the historical subject in a moment of danger. The danger threatens both the content of the tradition and those who inherit it. For both, it is one and the same thing: the danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer; he comes as the victor over the Antichrist. The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious."
- Walter Benjamin, Thesis VI

"The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice."
- Karl Marx, Thesis III

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Subjectivation and Economic Theory: A Brief Survey

For mainstream economists, subjectivity is understood as a given. (And who can blame them? It is the same for most of the human and social sciences, most of academia.) The tradition of moral philosophy from which economics was born provided the substance – a pre-Kantian subject overdetermined by uncritical conceptualizations of the time – which has been modified, supplemented, and articulated throughout the centuries by a whole host of theorists, but which has also maintained the same stiflingly orthodoxical makeup all along. Raising the matter of subjectivity is not a 'postmodern' conceit, nor is this matter epiphenomenal to the true science of economy. Rather, subjectivity is the very ground on which any foundation of the science and philosophy of economy must be built, and as such, the problem of its production, distribution, and consumption should be raised and negotiated wherever possible.

The reason I ascribe such an import to subjectivity and its production is precisely because it is only in and through these processes of production that we are able to act, that we are 'produced' as actors or agents. Thus a subjective production or 'subjectivation' is the condition of our reality as actors; it is the 'mode' of acting in which we become agents; it is agency. A production of subjectivity is simultaneously a production of agency, and agency is the cornerstone of economics. There is a fundamental subjective presupposition, an opinion (orthodoxy = “right opinion”), at the heart of the orthodox account of economic agency which ensures the consistency of economic theory as we know it: we all know what it is to have agency, to choose and decide, to desire and prefer, to think and act. Economists are therefore unwilling to question how these characteristics are produced, how they imply heterogeneous compositions of elements, be they individual and personal, familial, social, politico-legal, religious, linguistic, ecological, machinic, aesthetic, ethical, customary...

The orthodox account is content to homogenize subjectivity (capitalism produces a 'subjectivity of generalized equivalence', as Félix Guattari says), to disregard the heterogeneity of the factors and processes of its production, of its internal components and external connections. Yet we can see trends within economic theory that, while not directly challenging the subjective presuppositions, may lead us to engage the rich problematic of multifarious productions of subjectivity and agency, and the multiplicity of unique, singular subjectivations, as they relate to and indeed ground economic activity. We can already see such trends in the history of economic theory in the work of Marx and the institutionalist movement, and it seems that they are reemerging, in perhaps a less radical form, in the mainstream reappropriation of the latter movement known as 'neoinstitutionalism' (Marxian thought has itself suffered from an unfortunate 'orthodoxication', although the last few decades have also witnessed creative and aberrant appropriations thereof).

Douglass North, a neo-institutionalist, expresses such a trend in reviving the problem of incentive structures and their composition, against the assumption of perfect rationality, in his article “Economic Performance Through Time”. The processes of learning and development that produce individual subjects feed into the evolution and transformation of the social institutions in which they are involved and invested, and these institutions in turn react back on these subjects, shaping their own processes of change through limitation and facilitation. This reciprocal relation of production underlies the performance of economies, as it endows subjectivated persons and groups with the unique ensemble of habits, tools, and investments (of 'irrational' desires as much as 'rational' interests) that define its agency and hence its actions and decisions. Thus, North is able to raise the problem of transaction and information costs as primary in economic interactions, and to challenge the tendency in neoclassical theory to disregard them.

This impels us to think of markets in terms of the cost structures that they rest upon, which entails that truly 'efficient' markets are not the norm, but an exceptional case. Neoclassical theory tells us that information and the models in which we employ it may initially be imperfect, leading to significant cost structures, but that these will self-correct over time and tend towards perfection, thereby leading to negligible transaction costs. North rejects this: “Individuals typically act on incomplete information and with subjectively derived models that are frequently erroneous; the information feedback is typically insufficient to correct these models. Institutions are not necessarily or even usually created to be socially efficient; rather they, or at least the formal rules, are created to serve the interests of those with the bargaining power to create new rules.” [North, 359-60] This presents 'socially inefficient' institutions, and the detrimental power relations that breed them, as an obstacle to be overcome. Of course, this begs the question of whether 'correct models' are at all possible, at least in the traditional sense; perhaps if our information is always incomplete, our models always necessitating assumptions and chance, our desires and investments always confused and complicated, then we should think of models not in terms of an objective validity, but a functional efficacy and ethical consistency in relation to the subjectivations that engender them and whose processes of production they react upon.

Elsewhere, we can find the problem of the production of subjectivity raised in literature on geographic factors in economic composition [“Geography and Development” by Henderson, Shalizi, and Venables]. This article engages the question of unequal distributions of economic activity throughout the world, and subsequently investigates the forces and arrangements that produce dense, highly active clusters in some areas while neglecting and excluding other areas. “Why do so many economic decision takers choose to locate close to each other? And, for those who cannot locate in an economic center, what are the consequences of being outside, and possibly remote from, existing centers?” [Henderson et al, 81-2] Although they pose these questions in a geographic context, one should not take this as implying a 'geographical determinism'. Rather, they are investigating the geographic factors that are involved in certain processes of subjectivation, particularly urban and rural subjectivations. It is not that the actors do not 'choose for themselves', but that the decision that selects a choice is produced by the conjunction of many heterogeneous forces, components, and connections, a conjunction that is coextensive with the production of the 'agency' of the actors themselves; hence the emphasis on forces of agglomeration and dispersion and connections to the ‘outside’ – external markets, other regions, etc. – that condition the development of urban centers of subjectivation.

A third instance of this trend can be found in literature on international relations. Alexander Wendt gives us a promising formulation of the nature of State agency in his article "Anarchy Is What States Make of It". Rather than ascribing self-interested and self-serving egoism to some fundamental, eternal, primordial human nature, and hence reducing such attributes on the part of States to this nature (as the realist school is wont to do), Wendt rejects such easy answers. This is not to deny that egoistic structures of agency exist, but rather than ascribing these to a primordial nature, Wendt is interested in inquiring into how they are produced and constructed as such. Thus, rather than defining international anarchy (i.e. the fact that no central authority completely constrains the actions of States) negatively, as a default condition in which self-interested actors find themselves, he follows a positive definition that construes it as productive, possessing a 'causal power'. To understand the sense of this power, one must understand Wendt's constructivism. This prerogative sees knowledge as constructed by the ensemble of social forces, conditions, and customs in which it is situated, and this includes an actor's own self-knowledge, and hence his or her identity and interests. Knowledge does not relate to an objective, external reality, but rather only to a contingent and relative production of structures of agency.

Despite the emphasis on production, Wendt's constructivism seems to fall short of the potential force of the constructivist prerogative, insofar as it remains epistemological, that is, concerned with knowledge and its conditions. It does not call into question the construction of the subject of knowledge and the production of subjectivity itself; it begins with the subject presupposed, and with subjects as involved in social relationships through which meaning is constructed. This suffers from a relativism in which reality and the knowledge thereof are reduced to social conventions, and it thereby seems impotent as the basis for positive interventions into reality. We would prefer an ontological constructivism, one in which not only meaning and knowledge, but subjectivity itself, is constructed through converging productive processes. Reality is no longer reducible to or irrecoverable from socially relative conventions and meanings; rather, sociality and meaning are themselves results of the processes of production that make up reality. The emphasis is thereby no longer on knowledge and meaning as relative to the social conditions of a subject, but on functional connections and capacities as relative to the real conditions of subjective production or subjectivation. Meaning is only one (or several) field(s) constructed through such processes and implicated in subjectivations, but it is by no means the be-all end-all of the inquiry.

Shortcomings aside, Wendt does provide salient insights regarding the construction of State agency. Rather than deriving from an essence or nature of humanity, the dispositions, interests, and tendencies of States result from the processes of production with which they are involved: both the internal processes of their own constituencies, and the international processes of war, alliance, trade, and so on. States may often be disposed to self-interest, but we must explain how this disposition is produced, through what encounters, connections, and processes. In this sense, the anarchy of international relations is not a neutral default in which States express their essential nature, but a 'causal power' endowing States implicated in international encounters and relationships with a capacity to mutate, to produce new dispositions and interests, to alter the structures of agency involved, on the basis of the undetermined and open-ended nature of such relations.

In the literature on international relations, the trend can also be found in Kenneth Oye's article "The Conditions for Cooperation in World Politics". Oye's problem is basically how we might produce cooperation between States, and hence, States with an agency disposed toward cooperation rather than aggression, competition, or isolation. He isolates three different aspects of the process through which States become disposed toward each other, and hence in which their agency is produced. These are the payoff structure, which conditions the formation and prioritization of interests of parties involved in a cooperative relationship; the repeatability of a 'game' or encounter, and thus the duration of the relationship of the parties; and the number of parties involved in a game or encounter. Through these variables, he analyzes the conditions that facilitate or deter enduring cooperative relationships. These variables are aspects of the dispositions, that is, the structures of agency (what Wendt refers to as 'structures of identity and interest') that makeup State subjectivity. These structures should be understood as being engendered by, but also reacting back upon, the processes of production that we have called 'subjectivation': processes from which subjectivity, and hence the power to act, to decide, result. Oye's understanding is very limited, and certainly contains presuppositions regarding agency and interest that we could do without, but overall he adequately expresses an approach to these through production and construction, rather than essences and natures.

These trends beg the question: how can a focus on the production of subjectivity reorient economic theory, and what are the potential trajectories for invention it draws within, and on the edges of, that field?


Rochenko said...

Reid, this is fascinating stuff, and I look forward to following your reports from the frontline.

A question: to what extent do you see the constitution of an economic subject as a training of the capacity for valuing that ends up progressively mutilating this capacity? I ask because one field upon which your problematic also appears to open is that of the relation between economic regimes of value and non-economic (e.g. ecological).

Reid Kotlas said...

You raise a great point. I think this happens to an immense extent, at least within capitalist economies. Here I'd employ Braudel's distinction between economic life as such, which is based on the emergence of markets and trade from material life, and capitalist economy with its anti-markets, centers of accumulation, capital begetting capital, systems of power, etc. While economic life may certainly require a capacity to valorize a wide variety of things in terms of an abstract quantification of (monetary) value, and hence would oblige training in such a capacity, it is when capitalist arrangements emerge that this mode of valorization turns back on and 'mutilates', as you so eloquently put it, other potential and actual modes.

As Guattari says in Chaosmosis, "Capitalistic value which generally subsumes the ensemble of these machinic surplus values, proceeds with a reterritorialising attack, based on the primacy of economic and monetary semiotics, and corresponds to a sort of general implosion of all existential Territories. In fact, capitalistic value is neither separate nor tangential to systems of valorisation; it constitutes their deathly heart, corresponding to the crossing of the ineffable limit between a controlled, chaosmic deterritorialisation - under the aegis of social, aesthetic and analytical practices - and a vertiginous collapse into the black hole of the aleatory, understood as a paroxysmically binary reference, implacably dissolving the whole consistency of Universes of value which would claim to escape capitalistic law. It is thus only abusively that one could put economic determinations in a primary position with respect to social relations and productions of subjectivity." [55-6]

The problematic of subjectivation I'm trying to raise is certainly meant to implicate alternative modes of valorization, as you rightly point out, especially ecological, social, and psychical modes. Of course, navigating and negotiating this problematic and this implication will be very difficult, but hopefully I'll make some progress over the course of the next year. Thanks for the encouragement!