Culture Machine, Vol 4 (2002)

CM2002 Article: Stiegler

Politics and Ethics from Behind

Paul Bowman

Clearly, the fear of political paralysis is precisely what prompts the anti-theoretical animus in certain activist circles. Paradoxically, such positions require the paralysis of critical reflection in order to avoid the prospect of paralysis on the level of action. In other words, those who fear the retarding effects of theory do not want to think too hard about what it is they are doing, what kind of discourse they are using; for if they think too hard about what it is they are doing, they fear that they will no longer do it. In such instances, is it the fear that thinking will have no end, that it will never cease to coil back upon itself in infinite movements of circularity, and that limitless thinking will then have pre-empted action as the paradigmatic political gesture? If this is the fear, then it seems to rest upon the belief that critical reflection precedes political action -- that the former sets out the plan for the latter, and the latter somehow follows the blueprint established by the former. In other words, political action would then presuppose that thinking has already happened, that it is finished -- that action is precisely not thinking, unthinking, that which happens when thinking has become the past. -- (Butler, 2000: 265)
Today, on this earth of humans, certain people must yield to the homo-hegemony of dominant languages. -- (Derrida, 1996: 30)

In the academic contexts of the journals, books, and conferences of cultural studies, as well as of the cluster of related academic practices sometimes called the 'interdisciplinary humanities', we regularly hear it said that we are all highly conscious that the sneaky rhetorical operations of tropes, figurative language, and a whole army of persuasive techniques are always at play in even the most avowedly logical, rational, and literal of communications. We say we remain conscious of this. But, as Althusser argued, consciousness itself still remains a specific kind of unconsciousness; or as Laclau and Mouffe contend, implicitly, everything, even a form of consciousness, is still fundamentally a repression of the consciousness of its own impossibility. For many people, 'highly theoretical' assertions like these demand explanation, justification: 'What the hell is all that supposed to mean? What is the possible use of all this theoretical nonsense, this pointless profundity? Sure, it sounds profound and momentous, but really, what use is it for anything?' And suchlike. Theoretical 'insights' like these are readily and perhaps quite justifiably received with an immediate question mark. And I do mean justifiably in all registers, including the 'most theoretical' of them. Theoretical discourses do seem to beg answers to the question of their possible 'application', of whether they have an application, and hence whether they 'have' any worth or value, or where they fit into any worthwhile practice. I don't dispute the justifiability of these questions, and I think they must always be allowed to invade and interrupt any otherwise smooth flow of theory, and that they should be received hospitably and treated with the utmost seriousness. For it may indeed seem to be the case that much, if not all, theoretical production (the production of theoretical statements) does not even seem to be immediately intelligible, let alone potentially 'useful' or 'practical' to any real, urgent cause or practice -- well, useful for any practical practice. And a list of practical practices obviously wouldn't include the theoretical practices of which so many lofty-sounding profundities seem to be the tautological beginning and end-point. To include theoretical practice into the category of the practical would be to have stretched things a bit too far, it would seem. On first inspection, the question would seem to be one of where capital-t-Theory fits in to practical matters, where it could or should fit in, or, as Richard Rorty has said, 'Surely the burden is on those who, like Laclau, think [that "abstract" theoretical ruminations and assertions are] useful to explain just how and where the utility appears, rather than taking it for granted' (1996: 71).

But we must pause, and consider this familiar opposition or distinction between the Theoretical and the Practical (or the theoretical and the 'useful', that which has 'utility'). We know, for instance, that the oppositional articulation of theory to practice was neither theory's nor practice's first incarnation. They have both had histories quite independent of each other for long periods of time. Their current articulation and apparent co-implication is itself the result of a specific kind of thinking -- perhaps, as Rorty's own wording implies, utilitarian thinking. So the received, as if universal, necessity of the couple theory/practice is not necessarily the natural or inevitable binary within which we have to think 'what theory is' (Godzich, 1986: ix-xvii). Indeed, you might say that this particular linkage puts the blinkers (profoundly practical blinkers) on our thinking about either and both. For, the Practical (practicality, practice, practical-ness) is all too easily invoked and instituted as if being the natural or inevitable defining opposition that somehow simply states what Theory is. I shall nevertheless maintain this impossible binary throughout this paper, despite the fact that it collapses upon the slightest inspection; and I shall maintain it because it would seem to have such a strong hold on the thinking of many arts and humanities academics of an avowed 'anti-theory' bent.

If we keep to this binary, theory is all too easily interpellated as somehow being inactivity, the passive, because speculative, conjectural, contemplative. We could even say feminine or female, following Barthes' observation of the historically overdetermined equation within narratives of waiting (not 'doing', not being 'out there') with the yearning female lover separated from her heart's desire (Barthes, 1978: 13-14). If this is indeed a feminisation, then already the ethico-political implications should give avowed anti-theorists pause for thought before hastily producing further pejorative declarations about theory being crap and useless. But whether feminised or not, theory here still lends itself to being construed as the non-active, non-practical other of practice, which is active. (And more manly, I'm tempted to say, and more 'proper', 'most proper'.) Of course, the paradox of the overvaluation or overdetermination of practice as positive, as being the ultimate aim, ideal, and even idea of theory (if that makes any sense), is that when practice is opposed to theory, then practice 'itself' is not itself -- it is only really a figure, or idea, image, myth, fantasy, a non-present conjuration, or under-theorised rhetorical assertion. Familiar and intelligible to all, yes, but as Hegel's famous line points out, the very things that are 'familiarly known' are not properly known, and precisely because they are 'familiar' (quoted in Spivak, 1974: xiii). The invocation of practice remains precisely that: an invocation, a spectre, conjured up 'out of thin air', as it were, or out of a non-present idealisation. Practice, here, has no immediate or necessary referent. It implies materiality -- the trope of materiality always amounting to a grasping for the ontological that Martin McQuillan has recently called the 'trope of tropes' (2001: 123) -- but that is as close as it gets. For the invocation of practicality, just as with the invocation of reality, or totality, or even individuality, and so many other terms, remains figurative, non-referential, and utterly distinct from some presumed thing-itself, despite all appeals and appearances to the contrary.

So, as you may anticipate now, despite my approval of the sense in which insistent reference to the question of the practical 'application' of all theory must remain an urgent question for all thinking/theorising, the more pressing question is that of what, exactly, 'non-theorists' think they are doing that is not theoretical or that is somehow magically more practical, in their own books, journals, classrooms and conferences. Is there any epistemological or ontological or distributive or qualitative or affective or natural difference at all? What is the secret of the realists', practicalists', pragmatists', anti-theorists' ability to really-engage, really-contact, really-connect, really-influence, really-change, really-alter, really-add, really-intervene and really-improve the indubitably important 'reality' that theorists, despite all their thinking, have forgotten or been unable to discover? Or have I missed the point? Is it that there is no difference and no secret, and indeed neither more nor less 'success'? Perhaps the entire framing of the debate is unhelpfully skewed and amphibological from the start, from the presupposition of a difference which is nothing more than a spectre, a haunting idea, fantasy, or hope. If there is a difference between the 'theoretical production' of, say, certain traits of cultural studies and related 'theoretical humanities', as opposed to the supposedly non-theoretical production of other quarters within and around these pockets of academic production, then the difference is hauntological; or rather the difference is only that of two different reaction-formations to one spectre or antagonising impossibility. A spectral idea of practice haunts arts and humanities' production. Its power derives, obviously 'at first' from metaphysical desire itself, but this is compounded by the arts and humanities automatically standing accused and challenged to be usable, by some more powerful, more 'using' other (Bowman, 2001a: 277-291). The prevailing recourse to a binary of theory/practice by which to comprehend either term and to designate activities under one or the other heading is itself complicit with the powers that antagonise all of the 'discursive disciplines'. Discursive disciplines (arts and humanities) do not really produce tangible products. They are not properly productive, and hence already accused, and cannot but be guilty. Especially if all think in terms of theory/practice.

So from where else should we start then? I think that, just like any other beginning, we have no real option but to begin from a deconstruction. So, to reiterate what is on the table then: theory and practice are connected, at least at first glance, by their opposition. Theory's aim and justification, ideally speaking (but whose ideal is it?), is to assist and orientate whatever practice it theorises, in some way. Practice needs to find and use the best theory, the proper theory, the right theory. Every practice is based on something like a theory -- even if only on a vague rationale. A reasonable picture, perhaps. But, whilst this does provide quite a clear and intelligible justification of and for theoretical activity, it also, perhaps less clearly, amounts to the subordination and regulatory policing of theory. It presumptuously places limits on theory. When theory is beholden to practice, it constrains it in advance to accept the extant as the extent of its remit. And this is so even before anyone has been allowed properly to think about what practice and the practical are, mean, and do (or practice). This very justification of theory also holds it to ransom. For now, theorising must not wander too far afield, too far off the beaten track, too far away (Derrida: 1981, 144) from the predetermined goal, which can only have been anachronistically and tautologically posited before it could ever have been 'known' to be 'best', or indeed even thought about properly (if theory is at all the effort to think things properly). So this version of theory's proper place, to use or abuse a common theoretical idiom, would entail being closed in advance to the possibility of the future, alterity, change, alteration: closed to the possibility of ethics, then. Judith Butler terms this accepting the extant as the limit of the possible (2000: 267).

As soon as one accepts the binary theory/practice, then, even though you are already in some sense theorising (thinking, reflecting, speculating, and the rest), theory is conceived in relation to practice as subordinate and supplementary -- necessary, yes; generative, yes; transformative, yes; but therefore potentially destructive, and always ultimately dangerous, to be policed, regulated, tamed (a kind of pharmakon (Derrida, 1981: 102ff.)). When theory is comprehended in a binary with practice, it always (by dint of the discursive overvaluation of 'practice', 'the practical' -- hence 'real') already stands accused of being useless. (Practically a scapegoat, then, a fall-guy for the eventuality of any failures, flaws, faults and emergent crises of practicality and the real.) Theory is contradictorily understood both to oppose and to supplement practice. Either way, and both ways, i.e., doubly, it is always already obliged and enjoined, bound over, to justify itself by betraying itself, rendering reason for itself in supposedly 'non-theoretical' terms, subordinated to the proper order.

There is much more to be said about this. And there is much more to be said about it, whether or not you are 'for' or 'against' whatever you think of as good or bad theory or practice, proper or improper theory or practice; and indeed what you think of (or practice) as theory and what you practice (or think of) as practice. There is always more to be said about theory and about practice; and this 'always more to be said' is an always more that will be said, for better or for worse, for for or against, or for otherwise. If you disagree with this assertion, for instance, you would just have to say so, and thereby prove it. And as we cannot but acknowledge that there is always more on the way, always some more 'always-more-that-is-going-to-be-said', we could go a bit further and acknowledge that we don't know and can't predict in advance whether all, none, any, or which bits, are going to be theoretical and which practical. And we can't predict even 'after the fact', as it's always in the post (see Derrida, 1987: 33). There's more to come, which will have an unsettling bearing on what has been established. It is undecidable whether or not it will be theoretical or practical.

If it didn't before, then, this being said, perhaps now opposing or even contrasting theory to practice might appear to be a bit of a naïve schematisation, for at least the two reasons that, first, the distinction itself is secondary, and second, you cannot know in advance of some decisive moment that will decide everything, as there's always another one coming, in the future. Everything could have a bearing, and unsettle what seemed to have been the case. Every coming moment can undecide and/or re-decide the 'truth' of a remark's character, its work, and its effects; and because there can never knowably be a finally decisive moment (if there were, you could not know it, as it would have to be death (Derrida, 1987: 33)) -- whether or not a remark is 'latent and theoretical' (unused, unusable, useless) or 'practical and transformative', even revolutionary. For there is always more that will be said, and the 'truth' of this theoretically and practically incontestable condition keeps coming along, before, during, and after, enabling and scuppering any determination, decision, judgement, consignment or 'sentencing' about anything and everything at all. (All decisions sentence, condemn, classify, and constrain something other, and all are ultimately symptomatic of an always partly tacit and implied (i.e., unconscious) system of values.)

But this always more, this excessiveness, is often taken to be an exclusive property of theoretical discourse, even though it is simply a feature of discourse, all discourse, no matter even how 'scientific' or non-discursive it seems (Lyotard, 1984: 18ff). The interminable self-reflexivity, the mise-en-abyme, of analysis and self-interrogation, generated by the (self-proclaimed and otherwise dubbed) theoretical discourse of cultural studies and other disciplines in arts and humanities is too often decried, even within some circles of cultural studies itself. It is deemed only excessive, apparently only narcissistic self-reflexivity, only the production of only more self-indulgent self-reflexivity. Accordingly it is readily deemed insufficient (because it is too much, so it is not enough), unrelated (self-reflexivity and introspection becoming bad or deleterious after some assumed but unspoken proper cut-off point), unconnected to 'reality'/'practice' (as if these things are somehow simply 'out there'). So theory is 'properly' (which always means too hastily and improperly) bound over to justify itself in terms of its presumed elder and better brother, the 'good son', Real Practice (see Derrida, 1981, and my own reading of this trope in his Dissemination, in Bowman, 2001: 50-65). This injunction or demand that is regularly made of theory requires it to betray itself in order to justify itself; determining it through the mark of failure: as it has failed to be practical, it is guilty and should at least try to be practically practical (almost, imminently, virtually, nearly, close to becoming practical).

Of course, my production or trade in ostensible profundities here is not something exclusive to a theoretical perspective. Much of what I've been saying -- perhaps much of what Theory often says -- also has an existence in the realms of 'normality' or 'real life'. In normal circles, some of the very things that theory over-blows, inflates, and peddles as profundity, circulate as commonplaces, as platitudes. There is surely much more to say about the fact that the same 'insights' appear in more than one realm, and especially about the different statuses that otherwise 'equivalent' observations are allotted: that what is overvalued as profound in one realm is devalued as trivial in another. Here, for example, I am pushing the profundity that there is always more to be said; that you can never say it all. But, really, it's no big deal; it's trivial, obvious, tedious even. So it is only in the outrageously hyperbolising, excessively piffling realms of theoretical speculations about such an observation that one can be allowed the (un)necessary time and space, which looks so much like aimlessness, like being 'at a loose end' enough or too much, to take it further than any normal, sensible, commonsensical or practical discourse would permit. But perhaps it is more profound and trivial at the same time that this ultimately frustrating condition, that you simply cannot say or do it all, circulates in all registers and is both theoretically and practically the condition of and for being able to say or do anything at all. As much as it is enervating and ultimately frustrating, it remains surely always a good thing. One only needs to think about it practically for a moment to see this: who would want to not be able to say or do anything, ever? And yet the desire, the (death) drive, to say it all, have it all, get it all down and done and finished remains. It cannot ever 'all' have been said and done. Were it to be so, we'd be finished. This is both a source of hope, promise, possibility, and of frustration, failure, and the inevitability of incompletion. Incompletion is constitutive. Why else -- how else -- start?

That there is clearly much to be said about this should, to my mind, go without saying. But, perhaps less clearly, it also cannot be all that clear. For after all that has been said, there is still more to be said, and the fact that there is still more to be said means that something about every remark is in some sense unintelligible -- that we are chasing after a clarity that is permanently deferred. At least this must be the frustrating hope. The belief otherwise, the belief that we understand it all, that everything is clear, is the realm of clear-conscience, absolute certainty, and their fascistic corollaries. Absolute certainty is closure to the future, to alterity, and to the ethical, at least. It is being not at home to guests, questions or dissent. Moreover, incompletion must be the hope because one of the generally unintelligible but hugely practical consequences of all of this is that unintelligibility itself can be seen to be the condition for the possibility of any 'intelligibility' and 'clarity' that there ever is. The experience of clear understanding and intelligibility (or, rather, the faith that there is ever clear understanding and intelligibility -- for even this can never be known) is actually the experience of an institution, the experience of institutionalisation. Clarity must always be imposed. The way to understand something must be imposed, instituted, in order that there might be any understanding. This, admittedly, is a reversal of the usual way of understanding 'understanding'; but the word 'under-standing' itself, taken at face value and then reversed, literally tells us how to understand understanding: understanding means 'standing-under', and the thing we stand under to understand something in the same way as another or each other is an institution -- ourown institutionalisation, which is that which goes without saying.

In one more way, once again, knowledge is shown to be inextricably co-implicated and co-articulated with power. Clarity, intelligibility, mutually understood knowledge, is always only a local and temporary and partial stabilisation (in all senses of the word 'partial'), achieved by expelling the 'wrong' in order to institute and clarify the 'right', at the same time and by the same token as instituting what stands in for 'the good' and what must go as 'the bad'. Of course this 'at the same time and by the same token' is an idealisation that only works to try to impose itself through processes of reiteration and repeated, motivated, re-articulation. Clarity must be imposed, but complete clarity can never be achieved. It is only local, partial and temporary, if it 'is' at all -- and we could never be entirely clear about that. For the truth of interpretation is, as it were, misinterpretation. 'Correct' interpretations only come about through the value-based expulsion of alternatives, which return to haunt or antagonise 'the proper'.

Perhaps you think this is all just too theoretical to be of any practical value or use. Then allow me to try to clarify my point: Everything depends on secondary, supplementary factors, the unwritten protocols of discussion, language conventions, terminology, jargon, ways of conceptualising, thinking, discoursing; and these secondary factors are eminently internalisable, forgettable, readily overlooked, unseen, or deemed supplementary. It is impossible to remain fully conscious of them all, or even to know what they 'all' are, or where relevant but secondary factors 'end'. What we think of as theory and what we think of as practice is determined by secondary factors too. In fact, what is deemed to be primary is itself determined by secondary factors. So, really, the secondary is primary, as it is that which is taken as read, going without saying, which thereby enables the erection of the supposedly primary. No one can be conscious of everything (which would be omniscience), so even consciousness is only a specific kind of unconsciousness, or a repression of the consciousness of consciousness' own impossibility.

Too much jargon? Too much cliquey, elitist allusion and 'impenetrable' short-hand? Too untranslatable an idiom? And hence too theoretical? Maybe so -- definitely so; but in fact 'jargon' is constitutive of all languages: all idioms are jargon, intelligible only to the initiated, and idioms are constitutive of language. They are also a condition of its impossibility -- for idioms are what they are because of their singularity, their untranslatability. They have to be translated, but cannot ever properly be. There will be attempts, but these attempts, whilst necessary, are insufficient, possible but impossible, and both at the same time, for the selfsame reason. The understanding of any idiom, any jargon, any concept, or any signifier at all, always relies -- for its supposedly 'correct' comprehension -- on certain conditions: conditions of exclusivity: exclusiveness and exclusion. For if all signifiers can be rearticulated to signify something else, which they can, then what stabilises them and determines their 'correct' meaning is itself a form of power -- a power of correction -- one common to all institutions, all groups, all practices. Indeed, it is only because of conflicting powers of correction that communication, agreement, disagreement, and understanding, are possible at all, if they ever are. Disagreement, insurrection, is always related to a reinterpretation, or correction, of what 'correct' means. Even the concept or signifier of 'correct' has no correct concept or signified. You may disagree with me on this, but you would be incorrect. If you disagree you prove my point.

So we could perhaps do worse, or more incorrect or improper things, than to enquire into the assumptions that underpin the most proper, acceptable and correct kinds of discourse, and that enable 'it' or 'them' to assume their status as the most proper, most acceptable, and correct. And as it is also surely more proper to assume oneself to be at least somewhat and somehow in the wrong (which I also really do), then perhaps we could begin by thinking about the difference between the kind of discourse I am engaging in here, and the most supposedly intelligible and acceptable kinds of academic discourse. I will not offer an 'example' of such a discourse, as, if it were truly exemplary then it would be absolutely singular, and my critique would automatically be unjust and incorrect. How can you generalise from the singular? So I shall invoke the general, proper, most acceptable and correct from no example, but rather from the conjuration of its idea, from the concept itself. Indeed, this is exemplary of what is generally done, anyway, even by those who otherwise decry supposedly non-referential or transcendental discourse. Or if you desire an example, then we could take this (you have already done so), my own article, here present, as the newest instance of something standing accused, in all the conceivable academic registers, of not being proper, of being wrong. Let's read this present work as an example of something trying to work out how to be most proper and correct, in order to see how propriety and rectitude always already transgress themselves.

So I assert (always an improper rhetorical operation): there is always an idea of the generally intelligible, even though every attempt to flesh out exactly what that would be can only show itself to be partial, limited, exclusionary, and impossible. The invoked 'generally intelligible' is discursively coordinated with 'acceptable', normal, proper, clear, etc. And this conflation stands in for the best, insofar as seeming to be accessible to 'the majority, or the virtuous, or the wise' -- ideally and tautologically (and impossibly) this becoming all groups at the same time, to the extent that they become any one of these groups by virtue of some spurious minimal level of competence held 'in general'. A spurious schema for a spurious schema, perhaps. Just like that of theory/practice, which nevertheless remains, works, and has 'real' effects. My point: academics, and all others, make a choice, or an alternative is staked out for them in advance. Let's stick to academics, like those in cultural studies, like me 'in' cultural studies, and all those others whose identity claims and justifies itself by reference to an intention to relate to social, cultural, ethical and political matters of some real consequence. On the one hand, they either accept dominant forms of discourse on the political, etc., the benefit of which being that they may thereby seem to speak clearly and intelligibly, as it were, to the majority. Or, they may reject such popular forms, and accept or develop others, perhaps because the dominant discourse is intellectually unsatisfactory to them, which it perhaps should always be, for any number of reasons (conflation, simplification, reduction, hypostatisation, etc.). As Judith Butler has argued, the problem for politicised academics is between either getting involved 'properly' (in terms legible within the dominant discourse), but therefore having to use terms and concepts that you distrust or disagree with, or alternatively, of trying to intervene otherwise (with some intellectual rigour, say), but in so doing becoming unintelligible, and hence apparently not being involved properly at all (Butler, 2000: 265-68). Both versions of the proper are simultaneously also improper.

This is a double bind of political academia, in what the Derridean mode would call a 'quasi-transcendental sense': namely that, for academics to be political or to do politics in recognisable forms also means to relinquish the claim to be purely academic. Indeed, in an idealised academic sense, the very formulation 'politicised academia' is oxymoronic. And nowhere more so than when it is thought of in terms of a personal or subjective intention (one that would thereby pervert 'truth' tendentiously). For, although it can always be shown that academic knowledge is automatically political by default of its situation in hegemony, it remains the case that, academically-speaking (and academics, to be academic at a given moment or in a given statement, must always be 'academically-speaking'), the intention to be political literally transgresses the obligation to be academic. Academic practice would never seem to be compatible with the idea of being a deliberately politically motivated, partial, or biased activity, in an ideal sense. Yet, look at a subject like cultural studies -- one that actually claims to be both academic and political. It gained admission to the university for impeccable academic reasons even though it declared itself to be politically and ethically motivated, and biased, in ways that scholarship is not supposed to be. One reason for its successful admission is that it exploited some already academically legitimate bodies of knowledge, such as, most famously, Foucauldian studies of institutions of knowledge that generate or are otherwise agents of forces of social power (as well as the work of Frankfurt School, Gramsci, Continental theory, and so on: I presume you know the list. . .), all of which shows that knowledge is always already political by default of its location in hegemony: there is no neutral or natural objectivity; no possibility of being non-biased; no possibility of being non-political or fully ethical. Exploiting the reserves of this fissure is arguably a key element of what Derrida or Spivak would call the 'teleiopoetic propulsion' of cultural studies (Derrida, 1996a: 31ff; Spivak, 2000: 352). So cultural studies can legitimately and academically claim to have political bias without contradicting its academic obligations, because one of its premises is that knowledge is political.

But the very idea that there could be a mode of being or doing that is purely and properly 'academic', without the very institution of this category having been both compromised in advance by secondary, supplementary, and non-academic factors (institutional, ideological-political, contingent-historical, and so on), and without also regularly being transgressed by all concerned, every step of the way, is itself a regulative fiction. The boundary between the academic and the non-academic is more produced by its transgression and contestation than it is by any internal, inherent or positive qualities. And at least one of these regular and regulating transgressions is the inevitable and necessary slip out of what is said to be properly academic discourse (measured, dry, reasoned, rational, logical, attentive and sensitive to specificity, etc), and into its supposed other (the judgmental, derogatory, humorous, angered or otherwise impassioned, etc.). Academics get tired and fed up too. This is inevitable; indeed I would go so far as to say structural, as it is analytically entailed by that feature of academia that is called having a project, and 'caring about it', of giving a shit, of always working in a field of incompletion, dissensus, and arguing interlocutors. So this very 'difficult' discursive mode, which I am flitting into and out of here, especially to the extent that it is not hegemonic within the academy and will require quite an effort of interpretation (were it the hegemonic mode, this would make it seem 'natural' or 'readily intelligible'; it currently being rather 'hard work'), is what many might call unintelligible and useless wank, a load of shit, a load of crap, just tossing off, intellectual masturbation, etc. Or, perhaps when retaining more of a reference to the tacit academic protocols supervening our statements (censoring the legitimacy of swearing, for instance), 'impenetrable' theory is designated as being nothing more than a kind of irrelevant, self-aggrandising narcissism, which only proves that this kind of scholarship (or capital-t-Theory) does not even want to bridge the gap between itself and the language of substantive political debate, or even between itself and 'proper' academic debate on 'real issues'. The proper is here coordinated with an assumed generalisable clarity that somehow, as if within itself, constructs the guarantee of its translatability into practical application or 'use'. The inter-implication between hegemonic intelligibility and the extant hegemonic institutional apparatuses or discursive network of power/knowledge is overlooked, effectively remaining inaccessible to and the 'unconscious' of the entire mode of conceptualisation.

As this seems to be a matter of language, we might consider this situation firstly through the generally understood de Manian insight that all language depends on troping, and that discursive styles immediately exercise a kind of regulative censorship over not only what can legitimately be said, but also over what can actually be thought. Another (Bourdieuan) way of putting this would be to think of censorship as an inevitable consequence of the imposition of any form, genre, or style; that is, to think of the imposition or adoption of any form of discourse already being a kind of censorship. Any and every style of anything excludes other things from itself in order to be itself and do what it does. And this means that, from the outset, in 'deciding' to use any kind of language, any style of discourse, then you are already, in a sense, blindly 'repeating without knowing' (Derrida, 1981: 75) both a certain way of doing something, and, more unsettlingly, a way of thinking and discoursing that actually decides you more than you decide anything yourself. Linguistic genres, modes, idioms, styles, ways of discoursing, etc., not only enable insights, they also strictly delimit the kinds of insights that can possibly be constructed as legitimate or intelligible. Moreover, any given 'style' is not hermetically sealed: we can't just simply negotiate and 'choose' between perfectly distinct systems of thought, in some metadiscursive manner, as if our thought and choice exists like some transcendental ego outside, over and above any given paradigm that we could just pick up and 'use': 'we' don't look at the range of kinds of thinking and doing on offer and neutrally select the 'best' -- even though it is all too easy to think of different paradigms as 'isolated islands' of distinct 'language games' (which thinking is to preserve some sense of a pre-constituted ego). For de Man has also offered us the unsettling formulation that tropes 'tend to be smugglers' (1978: 17), the implications of which are far reaching, both theoretically and practically, for any theory and any practice. What tropes tend to smuggle, peddle, or relay between putatively distinct language games and supposedly distinct genres of discourse, are whole sets of tacit values. In one sense, this is what Derrida has called the 'nonconceptual order' upon which any conceptual order is based (1982: 329).

Every different perspective, position, or paradigmatic orientation in relation to any object of attention, from the most 'natural' or 'commonsensical' position, to the most deliberately constructed or contrived, always implies a certain tropological organisation. And tropological structures are at least part -- a crucial supplementary part -- of what enables a certain unique kind of insight, a certain kind of knowledge. Maintaining a 'complete' awareness of the inevitable metaphoricity underpinning all putatively literal or objective knowledge actually substantially erases the possibility of establishing that any given 'piece' of knowledge is somehow neutrally or naturally 'true'; for it demonstrates the contingent constructedness of that 'knowledge'. The de Manian formulation for this is that any given 'insight' has been enabled by a particular kind of 'blindness'. Most constructions that are peddled as knowledge efface -- because they could not possibly maintain their claims of factualness or simple truth were they to countenance -- their constructedness, and hence, 'fictitiousness'. Viewing knowledge this way fundamentally unsettles the very distinction between fact and fiction, which, were the implications of this taken on board, would oblige a radical overhaul of the mode and manner of knowledge production. And this is surely one reason why there remains such a huge 'resistance to theory' throughout the arts and humanities. The constitutive supplement is all too easily belittled.

The simple straightforward argument here is that even when you really want and need to talk about something directly, this cannot but be 'mediated' (or rather, constructed, constituted) by a way of talking; and no matter how neutral, natural, obvious, appropriate or proper this way of speaking seems to be, it is still only a contingent, historical, culturally imposed construct. Put crudely, talking about specific 'urgent' matters, of any order, without reflecting on the way we are talking about them, is as bizarre as would be analysing a literary text without considering its language.

Now, cultural studies' remit avowedly involves political analysis, however construed: the analysis of and intervention into urgent (whether acute or chronic, emergent or residual) ethical, political, cultural, social and historical issues, crises, debates and problematics. Any such discourse really sincerely wants to address its objects of attention directly: all political discourse, I would argue, all motivated politics, from the most 'theoretical' to the most 'practical', really desire to intervene directly, to make a difference to the issue 'out there', 'in the real world'. But to adhere unquestioningly to the belief that there is simply an 'out there', that there is simply a 'real world', is equivalent to forgetting Raymond Williams' founding and grounding observation that there are no masses, just ways of conceiving of the masses (1993: 5). This clear and almost banal point is itself simply another way of saying that there is nothing outside the text, which simply does not mean (and has never properly meant, could not properly mean) that there are only books and that there are no people or real events happening out there; but rather that all we can learn from any discourse on any object is primarily to do with that discourse itself, rather than its object.

Surely it is also for this reason -- for reason of the inevitably terrifying or enervating vertiginous spiral of aporia and undecidable after aporia and undecidable -- that the constructed nature of academic discourse is normally entirely effaced. Even though that is all we've actually 'got'. We have not 'got' the object. For the thing-in-itself is unknowable outside of the constitutive mediation of an institution of knowledge establishment -- and the establishment of knowledge is always primarily enabled by the imposition of the power of correction, of right ways and wrong ways of looking, listening, saying and doing. And nor is any of this to resurrect a complacent scepticism -- as in 'I can't prove the real world exists', or to stupidly reduce the whole of postmodern thought to something like 'postmodernism says there's only false simulation' -- it is instead to insist on the need for a rather more academically responsible mode of conceptualisation and procedure than the general, tacitly held dogma that 'we are in here' and somehow not 'in reality' which is 'out there'. There are only ways of conceiving, whether that be of the masses or of anything else.

All academic political analysis, even that which uses deconstructive insights, such as, for example, the post-Marxism of Laclau, Mouffe, et al., which is highly influential in and around 'theoretical' cultural studies and beyond (and much reviled in 'non-theoretical' cultural studies and beyond), still subordinates, polices, and controls the implications of the very deconstructive insights that enabled it to be able to make any stable, meaningful, intelligible statements about the socio-political world -- which is its ultimate (conscious) object. Even deconstructive post-Marxism must stop itself from drifting into a potentially interminable introspection about what it wants to say and the way it says it, because it seems to think that such introspection would be a digression away from its proper aim or object of properly knowing about the socio-political world. Indeed it would be -- it would be a digression, or drift from the 'proper object' (the political world out there) to an 'improper object' (self-attention).

This is the double bind that shows itself in light of any supposedly unitary injunction, such as 'Study the political!'. For the first question that properly arises is 'How?'; which obliges an analytic drift into considerations of method, and so ever further away from the initial 'proper' aim. So this drift, digression, diversion 'must' be stopped, in order to deal with the proper object -- even though stopping this impropriety is itself improper, because propriety demanded it in the first place. So, a double bind: doubling, duplicitous, both enabling and paralysing. Like Derrida has said, you pull one strand, and the other just tightens the knot further. The hypothetical and impossibly simplified scenario, then, is one in which the most proper discourse on the political -- that which insists on making direct, self-assured declarative statements about the political 'out there' without any methodological considerations at all (refusing to do so because they are an improper digression or distraction) is ultimately the most parochial, naïve, ingenuous, unreliable, reflex, reactionary and implausible. On the other hand, the discourse which most properly attempts to fulfil the obligation to ask how to know, how to study, how to speak and how to do, etc., becomes interminable methodological interrogation which precludes 'getting to the point', or actually being able to know anything about the object/ive which was the start and end-point of its entire project. The double bind cannot -- properly -- be cut.

It remains the case, though, that the last thing any discourse on political and ethical matters wants to be is narcissistic, self-absorbed, and self-centred, dealing only with itself, playing only with itself, interfering only with itself. So, to stick to the single case of post-Marxist political theory -- which is a good example because it both 'uses' deconstruction, and, to the extent that it is read, is highly influential within cultural studies, whilst it is also readily reviled elsewhere in the academy1 -- you could say that post-Marxist scholarship abuses even as it relies upon the deconstructive injunctions of self-reflexivity and the analysis of auto-affection. And clearly it has to do this, because, like any social and political theory, it has already decided, in advance, that to be properly engaged with political matters it has to deal explicitly and in a literal academic mode with the properly political 'out there'. In naming, it presupposes itself: the name posits the presupposition and its direction is predisposed, overdetermined, imposed in advance, before it could possibly be 'known' that this is the 'proper' or 'best', or indeed 'only' way for political academia to be political or do politics. What's in a name? A name like this (which isn't entirely or singularly a 'proper name', but overwhelmingly a signifier of a lineage) constructs obligations to the lineage to which it is indebted, and telegraphs the future, which it has, in a sense, closed down. You could say, this preference is the result of another's gaze -- the gaze that would determine anything other to be improper, not proper political and/or academic work, and mere improper playing with themselves.

(Of course, one of the paradoxes here is that in order to have staged a new way of thinking and talking about the 'outside' political world, post-Marxism first analysed the discourse of other approaches to 'it', in order to establish a way that would be better, and that, in so doing, they 'prove' or exploit the impossibility of the 'outside' political world being anything other than always only a particular, local and motivated 'universal' construct. Perhaps they -- perhaps all who have ever done this (which is everyone who has ever engaged in academic discourse on another object or field) -- should more 'logically' have initiated a discourse on the impossibility of constructing a universally correct construct. In a subordinated sense they have and do also pursue this matter, but my point is, it is subordinated in order to erect and preserve the proper.)

Moreover, anything carrying the marks of Marx is bound over furthermore to the obligations of that filiation (if it is one); not just to academic protocols and academia's injunction to take a proper external object of study ('the political'). Post-Marxism, by virtue of its self-professed attachment to the project of Marxism, cannot be unmotivated, aimless, or pointless playing. It has something of a necessarily posited presupposition, a predetermined agenda, which is perhaps more than a little reminiscent of the logic whereby Rousseau, in order to argue what he had already really decided about the rectitude of heterosexual pairing, copulation and reproduction, is tropologically and analytically obliged to devalue masturbation as the aberration upon which his entire justification depends. . .

I daresay this will sound a little gratuitous or just a bit too facile a statement to make; to invoke Derrida's reading of Rousseau in Of Grammatology, in order to reintroduce, re-infect, or to keep injecting masturbatory imagery into this, for whatever reason or ulterior motive. True, I do want to keep masturbation in mind, especially in terms of its usually pejorative designation. But I am reiterating it here for other reasons. Derrida finds Rousseau's devaluation of masturbation, to the status of secondary supplement to and aberration of the proper, to be an argumentative manoeuvre 'necessary' to this style of discourse, enabling Rousseau to clarify the proper and the primary: the proper productivity of heterosexual intercourse. The secondary, the supplement, is not just that which we can't always keep in mind but which nevertheless underpins and enables our operations. It has a further significance: for perhaps all avowedly motivated practices may be in some sense encumbered with the constitutive obligation to devalue that which is 'useless' in their terms -- and when usefulness is on the line, all that is masturbatory or unproductive readily stands in as and for the inevitable scapegoat, simultaneously supplementing, concealing and replacing this operation.

Now, to the extent that cultural studies, and its preferred political theory (among which the work of Laclau, Mouffe, et al. should be, rightly and justifiably, included), are motivated activities, which desire to intervene, to effect, to improve, and so on, then perhaps they too must constitutively devalue something other -- and something other than their polemical antagonists -- something supplementary to themselves, something readily figured as masturbatory. This is a big deal for cultural studies if it honestly seeks to engage with issues of marginalisation, scapegoating, unethical exclusions and political hierarchising, and if the very discourse it uses turns out to operate according to these very logics. How could we establish if the discourse of cultural studies, or parts of one or more of the discourses of cultural studies, operates like this?

I think I have repeatedly, all too fleetingly, allusively and yet still polemically, gestured throughout this paper to the extent to which I believe anti-theory polemicists are already operating according to the injunctions of a discourse which is not fully 'their own', insofar as it is familiarly known and yet, were it to be subject to any kind of scrutiny, would reveal itself to be enabled by a tacit appeal to utilitarianism and also to be engendered or tropologically aligned with a patriarchal schema, both of which its interlocutors would no doubt renounce. Does that imply therefore that I am siding with the high-theory camp? Is capital-t cultural or political Theory exempt from charges of being enabled and operating according to, shall we say, a logic of not-the-lesser-violence? If deconstruction searches for 'the lesser violence' in as many scenes and operations as possible, then deconstructive political and cultural theory has an obligation to interrogate at least the little matter of the language it uses (for indeed it could be said that that is all it uses, all 'we-academics' can use).

It seems to me that what anti-theorists tend to dislike most about Theory is its insistence on finding 'logical reasons', on constructing 'logics', and getting carried away with them and this 'hyper-rational' and therefore irrational process. Rorty has spoken of 'wacky hyperrationalists' in a paper which relies entirely on precisely the erection of the proper by way of contrasting with the theorist figured as masturbator (Rorty, 1996, 69). And what he connotes and denotes by 'wacky hyperrationalist' is furthermore someone who gets such a narcissistic kick out of rationality and logicality that they become irrational and self-obsessed.2 Wankers, in short. Indeed, Diane Elam begins one feminist analysis by reading a scenario presented in The Post Card (1987: 175) in which she observes that 'Derrida speaks of a friend presented with an "apparently rigorously theoretical text . . . written such that it gave him an erection whenever he read it"'. From this she summarily concludes that 'Derrida links the demand of theoretical rigour, so often heard on the Left, with the masculinist discourse of penile tumescence' and that the 'very rigidity that would lend theoretical discourse its systematic objectivity is identified with a far from neutral machismo'. She correlates this with 'the persistent pun' in Derrida's work on the other meaning of the French se bander, or 'double bind', which can also mean to 'get a hard on', and she concludes that all of these factors point to 'a no-win situation for theoretical rigidity' (Elam, 1997: 182). Now, this may suggest one surprising way to interrogate the avowedly rigorous and logical approach of post-Marxist theory, which itself is at least a supplement to cultural studies' political thinking. For the logic/s discerned or constructed by post-Marxist scholarship are undeniably impressively rigorous, exacting, and attentive to complexity and multiplicity. But whether we agree or disagree with any of it, or indeed before we even begin to agree or disagree with any instance of a rigorously constructed methodological position, if we take Elam at her word, there may already be good reasons to be cautious of any 'logic', and actually becauseitislogical, aside from and before considering anything it actually says.

That there is a logic to this position itself of course goes without saying. But, despite the performative contradiction, Elam's articulation of logic, rigour, and the masculinist, does provocatively seem to promise or telegraph another kind of analysis -- a non-turgid non-penile feminist analysis 'to come', as it were. But -- here comes the double bind -- were I now to go on to identify something like the workings of a masculinist discourse of penile tumescence in post-Marxist theory or any other theory, then anything I decided from this could only properly be turned on me. If I deconstruct, or otherwise expose or reveal the demand of theoretical rigour, I can only do so according to the demand of a certain theoretical rigour, making the diagnostic effort itself symptomatic of the condition it claims to diagnose. And, I will also have recruited the means to do so from a text of explicitly feminist concerns; so the effort will have press-ganged a feminist perspective to further the very turgidity of the discourse. This double bind also lends itself to an oedipal symptomatisation -- of some wish to murder the father in order to usurp and occupy his symbolic position. Of course, I must plead that this is not 'my intention', but it may well be something of a structural fate inevitably entailed by a discursive style, and one that could only perhaps be avoided were I to opt for some 'different' manner of analysis, perhaps one like that suggested, promised or announced by Elam -- one that might not be liable to the kinds of traps associated with masculinist logic and rigour.

But the problem is that having a discernible logic, being recognisably, intelligibly, rational, or having a clear rationale, is also already the necessary character or feature of the language of academic discourse itself (or themselves). To be as clear and intelligible as possible means to be clear and intelligible in certain terms, and it already implies hegemony: To 'discourse otherwise' would still have to tie itself to the instituted norm it defines and constructs itself against. 'Discoursing otherwise' cannot but be seen as 'performance', and something that must always be 'explained', 'clarified', or 'translated' into the dominant form of academic discourse -- the 'rational' discourse which ignores its own performativity to impose itself as a kind of degree zero discursive mode. Thus, any discourse on the political has always already to use something of the inherited conventional protocols of discourse on the political. However, there are clearly many who discuss the political 'otherwise' -- so called postmodern thinkers, for instance -- but their apparently universal ridicule 'elsewhere' perhaps already suggests why the post-Marxists, especially Laclau, prefer a strictly logical, rational, and coherent 'style' (even though, for all their best efforts, they are still facilely and pejoratively decried as 'postmodern', as if that is reason enough to read them as somehow unreasonable, irrational or illogical).

The supposed 'difficulty' of the language of such political theory, and of the language of cultural theory in general, and the supposed apparent 'clarity' of many more popular modes, actually suggests the many difficulties of 'confronting' the object of analysis called the political or the socio-political in anything other than a turgid masculinist mode when one hopes this work will register 'in' the field one is concerned with, a 'field' whose construction has always been dominated by one or another manifestation of 'masculinist' discourse. The whole field is polarised between appeals to 'common sense' and appeals to apodictic 'logic'. Laclau and Mouffe have 'clearly', in some measure, inherited, comfortably and happily, an unambivalent sense of what political debate should be; it's just that it doesn't conform to more popular notions of what it should be. Discoursing 'otherwise' is apparently not really taken seriously by either camp (Derrida, 1996: 30). But this 'difficulty' -- and the fact that it is a difficulty not often perceived -- illustrates the stranglehold that 'reasonable' language, of whatever inflection, has on discourse of the properly political. You would be right to state that 'I' am clearly not going out of my way to try to construct an 'alternative'. But my justification for deferring the attempt devolves on the inevitable subordination of performance to its obligatory explanation or interpretation. I raise the matter here, albeit somewhat turgidly, because acknowledging this gendered contingency of rationality and logicality may sow the seeds of their deconstruction and, perhaps, transformation.

So, that being said, what have I said? One point is that when people accuse 'Theory' of being useless, unrelated or unconnected, distracted, self-absorbed abstraction, then that accusation is tropologically aligned with the standard slippage into a charge of masturbation -- as in, theory just plays with itself. That which is ostensibly disconnected or not putatively immediately related to real and pressing issues is readily said to be 'castrated', lacking direct purchase, direct utility, and any ability to 'intervene' directly into real and pressing issues. When Rorty, no mean theorist himself, accuses Laclau, Critchley, and Derrida of just playing with themselves, this is not least because deconstruction, for Rorty, is a kind of masturbation, primarily because it does not 'connect'. Rorty's charge is exemplary of the general tenor of criticisms levelled against Theory: that it just plays with itself.

What is especially telling about this facile and dominant binary between 'worthwhile work versus worthless wank' is that it can also be mapped onto the dominant binary structuring debate about university education in general that has dominated discourse about knowledge for at least two hundred years: namely, the debate about whether knowledge should have any 'use' (see Young, 1992: 97-126). Usefulness, today, is invariably coordinated with connection, penetration, control, prediction and production: in short, with technical, scientific, or financial utility and mastery. The Thatcherite assault on the arts and humanities exemplified this hegemonisation of cultural values with the ascendancy of the equation 'value equals usefulness equals profit'. But, given capital's attempted hegemonisation of all values, it becomes not imponderable to suspect that cultural studies' own obsession with themes supposedly contrary to this ethos, like ethics, politics, policy, intervention, and so on, is itself a symptom of the techno-capitalist hegemonic injunction to be intelligibly productive, in some way, as the determination of worth and value increasingly obliges all to render reason for everything in terms intelligible to discourses tropologically and analytically dominated by the discourse or ideology of capital.

So, how should cultural studies elaborate itself? According to what protocols of discussion? I have implicitly painted a picture of a scene polarised by two improprieties: hyper-academic versus hypo-academic. The difference between the former, a cultural studies fixated on supposedly unintelligible or 'too difficult' (or too theoretical, too self-obsessed, too masturbatory) exploration of the ethico-political, on the one hand, and the latter on the other hand, a cultural studies that only takes seriously empirical, fact-based discourse ('practical', 'real'), is crucially that the theoretically inflected approach deliberately (and, I would say, dogmatically3) leaves itself space in its remit to question how, why, to what ends, in whose interests, and supporting what ethico-political values and agenda, any discourse imposes itself as the as-is (i.e., the 'true', 'correct', 'common sense', etc.); while empirically inflected approaches subordinate or tend to factor out such reflection from the outset. Both positions can readily deem the other a waste of time, misguided digression, distraction, or, as Shakespeare put it, the 'expense of spirit in a waste of shame'. (Perhaps Shakespeare was speaking as a theorist here, as he was critiquing 'proper' procreational activity.) Theory easily deems empiricism to be subject to an inadequately thought-through agenda -- often implying its culpability in and as the reproduction and strengthening of capitalist and especially panoptical power. Empiricism deems theory to be distracted, unrelated, playing with itself. But this binary itself operates and is intelligible only thanks to a tacit universal that remains to be questioned or acknowledged, by both parties: worthwhile and worthless, valuable work and useless wank are accusations all too easily levelled by all against all. If this is a war of all against all, then what is common to all is the belittling of masturbation as the dominant trope of discourse on knowledge and especially on academic orientation.

But as long as the determination of worth is tropologically dominated by the fantasy of simple, direct, unmediated, face to face, missionary position heterosexual penetrative intervention leading to proper production, then our thinking remains beholden to the rules of a closed economic system imposed on thought. For the theorists here, this means that we are thereby still unconsciously trafficking the preference for insemination, no matter how consciously we subscribe to dissemination. For those who think theory is a load of old wank, my argument means that all supposedly normal, sensible, concern for real issues remains a simulation whose parameters are imposed by limits placed to police and regulate the acceptable interpretation of what normal and sensible 'are'. If these limits are accepted, this sentences us to remaining incapable of even thinking about why we think the way we do. If thinking is thought of as less important than doing, you still have to think about why one might think that, and whose interests it is in. Supplementary acts of mental masturbation are more fundamental than supposedly proper intercourse. The imperative that we must have productive intercourse with 'the real world' skews thought, sentences us to guilt (as such 'immediate connection' is an impossibility), and always consigns arts and humanities to the prejudgement of being less worthwhile than science and business. But our obligation is not to mime their 'success', to impose their remit and their kind of 'success' as our own. Our own obligation as academics is, first, to be academic. And wherever and whenever the potentially limitless reserves of playful, apparently pointless conjecture and reflection on any point ever meets a limitation which says 'stop!', then it is still our duty to ask why we should stop there, who gives the order, and whose interests it is in.

Put simply: the onus to justify one's activity is actually not on the theorist, who thinks and thinks and thinks, but actually it is on the non-theorist, who should justify why they think thinking should be low-level, pedestrian, less than and other than it could be, in short, wanting, lacking, or failing to carry itself further than is acceptable in whatever status quo. Perhaps we should try not to come too quickly to the conclusion. The incessant mind-wank of theorists needs no justification, if you think about it. If you won't think about it, then you are the intellectual imposture. But, moreover, and this is I think my most important point: if you won't engage with certain forms of academic thought, if you can't be bothered to understand, find out, learn, if you think that theories are disconnected, unrelated, irrelevant to the real world, then you must also stop to ask yourself precisely how and in what way and if at all your own sensible, reasonable academic activity 'connects' with anything more real than other unrelated academic activity. Because it doesn't. Neither more nor less. We are all wankers here.


1 Most recently, to my knowledge, see for instance Kagarlitsky (2000: 70-72) -- or, more precisely, the unacademic offhanded verdicts that this inspires (Joseph, 2001: 38).

2 I refer readers to Rorty's short 'Response to Ernesto Laclau' (Rorty, 1996), in which they will be able to see the procreative/masturbatory, productive/deleterious, useful/useless, binary mapped into a peculiarly self-contradictory and self-refuting -- you might say 'useless' or 'inefficient' -- engineer/mathematician conceit.

3 'The only attitude . . . I would absolutely condemn is one which, directly or indirectly, cuts off the possibility of an essentially interminable questioning, that is, an effective transforming questioning.' (Derrida, 1995: 239).


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