On aporia in discussion

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Tom Henry
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Oct 10 2017 09:13
On aporia in discussion

Below is a reflection on discussion that formed part of a correspondence I had a while back with someone from ‘our milieu’. This correspondence frequently became fraught and we both wondered why this was. This was my effort at understanding. The text of the email goes on to explore some of the issues we discussed. I just rediscovered this email and thought it might be of interest to others.

An aporia is: an irresolvable internal contradiction or logical disjunction in a text, argument, or theory. Or an expression of doubt.

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Discussion is an odd thing. What is it for? As long as a discussion doesn’t morph into an argument is it a way for participants to enhance their understanding of things? And, as part of that process, is it the case that the participants must explain their own positions to the degree that the other person(/s) understands where they are ‘coming from’? This might explain the mechanics of discussion, even arguments, but it doesn’t tell us what they are for. Why do we engage in discussion or have arguments? Is it for vanity – to tell others who we are? Is it for reasons of driven-ness that are largely out of our intellectual control? That is, an impulse to control others or to educate them? If we accept, even a little, that this might have something in it then would we indicate that such pedagogical motives are universal human traits, or are we safer to say that this is might be the case for the current day, but for other eras… who knows? Or do we engage in discussion to learn from others? Maybe we engage in discussion to enlist or recruit others, by less bombastic methods than those that strategise an argumentative tack. Sometimes discussion will actually be negotiation, if it is directed towards a particular type of purpose.

It is surely the case, since such a conclusion is only reasonable, that one engages in discussion for all of these reasons, and more. And that at different moments different features are dominant or missing in our motives for discussion. It would also be the case that one is often unaware of the motives of one’s engagement in discussion, since it might be a habit that one does not reflect upon.

But there is perhaps another motive for discussion that I have not mentioned, and this is to arrive at a solution, a way to take things forward, because, of course, there is no point in a discussion that has no practical outcome. If there was no aim for the achievement of a practical outcome, even if later it proves inadequate, or it is immediately felt to be doubtful, then the discussion would amount to no more than the telling of humorous stories between the participants.

Why are we engaging in this discussion? When we could just be telling each other funny stories from our respective lives? What losers we are.

Ah, but hang on, the reason we are in discussion is because - amongst other imperatives that I am perhaps aware of, and still other imperatives that I am probably not aware of - we view ourselves as slaves caught in a system that denies us our potential, or at least more joy – and because we think, or once thought, that we could make a contribution to the world that changed the world in our, and everyones', favour.

You use the term ‘aporia’ quite a lot, and it is perhaps crucial to our slightly different perspectives. You, I think, engage primarily in discussion to highlight then weed out and work beyond the aporias you discover (in others as well as in yourself), whereas I would claim to see the use of discussion as simply the discovering of aporias, for no other reason than to show impossibility. But here too is an aporia, because if I can convince others that discussion of whether or how the world might be changed ends always in a dead end, then I have enlisted them to my viewpoint, and I can smile smugly…

So, where you say you want to engage in discussion to tease out the aporias on both sides of the discussion, this does not ask for anything more than what is needed for a good, intelligent discussion: one that is dynamic and furthers the thinking of both participants. And there is nothing wrong with this. This is a reason I am engaging in this discussion. The only difference between us, if I am right, and I do not know how big or small this difference is in reality, is that your aim is to get somewhere that is in the area of ‘moving things on’, and my aim is to acknowledge a general impossibility. But here too, is another aporia in my thinking, because the notion of arriving at a dead end might implicitly demand that there are or were other routes, or that there is something beyond the dead end, or something before it. What do we do when we reach a wall? What I mean to indicate here is that discussion itself is aporetic on every level, and that everything we say or do is full of aporia and… that is the way of things. To attempt to weed out aporias from our field of vision or, perhaps, rather to identify them in order to control them, is, in my opinion, to make a mistake.

I have a saying that I think I have got from an old British TV comedy show (Dad’s Army): “There’s always one, isn’t there?” When one tries to make a sweeping statement, or tries to define a rule, there will always be ‘one person’ in the crowd or group who will prove the rule wrong. Like soldiers put into the ‘awkward squad’. It is the same as the moment in the film Life of Brian where Brian looks out of his bedroom window and sees a mass of adoring disciples. He is annoyed by them so tries to persuade them that they are all individuals who should follow their own paths with intelligence, rather displaying such a herd mentality. But they just chant back at him: “We are all individuals!” Then a lone voice deep in the crowd pipes up: “I’m not!”

So, why do I end up at impossibleness? Because of The Life of Brian, clearly. But also because I genuinely have no suggestions in general terms for what people should do; partly because I think that all previous solutions have failed in their promise; and partly because I do not know how much of the ‘false consciousness’ or misery that has ensued from the pursuit of solutions is due to unavoidable flows of material events, or to leaders who have led people on. Partly, also, because I feel that I am aware that I say one thing but do another all the time. I am against capitalism but I have spent my whole life working for it in various ways. How long might it be before what I might write (if it were ‘successful’ hahaha) becomes a way of refining capitalism (everything is appropriated and used; some say Debord was conscious of this in regard to his own work), or at least making everyone feel better about going on, in the style of Camus, or de Beauvoir, or even perhaps, or perhaps not, Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot? (Aporia alert:) I don’t want to tell people what to think, or hand out hope, I endeavour just to reveal the limits. Every time someone suggests/insists that, for example, we must build on the local and globalise it, or that we must not lose hope… then thinking is closed down by the appeal to realism. Many of us lie awake at night worrying that if we don’t tell people the truth and what to do, then nothing will happen, as if the rest of the people on the planet are stupid, or that they don’t have valid motivations, and ways of coping. But this evangelism of realism is just another work of imagination, take, for example, David Orr’s recent book, Dangerous Years. Such books as these are, in my opinion, closer to the realism of far-left, ultra-left and anarcho folk (ie the milieu we both inhabit to a degree) than such folk would care to admit. But, as Einstein apparently affirms, imagination is a powerful thing and can change the world. But if this change is facilitated on the level of ideas then it can only happen within the parameters of the current society. Thus we have Leninism fast-tracking capitalism, rather than creating a new society. The transition from Feudalism to Capitalism in Europe was not generated by a battle of ideas, even though it may have looked like that in its later manifestations. It was generated by the selfish interest of entrepreneurs who discovered the practical difference between making wealth through the extraction of absolute surplus value and through organising the potential to extract relative surplus value from the labors of their workers. It was only after this that the ideology of the Protestant Work Ethic emerged, along with the emergence of democracy and radical democracy (communism), which coincided with the decline of feudal motifs.

Capitalism must be the first society (if I can say that) that openly recognises that it is shit. It also deems other and past societies to be shit too, but an even worse kind of shit: backward and immobile. Capitalism, to personify it as Marx used to do, recognises and acknowledges that it needs constant fixing and improvement, transcendence even. Be the change you want to see in the world. Our society is built on the origin-myth of change [1] . We have to keep changing and improving (change and improvement in our society, of course, is not that at all, it is only the endless creation of busy-work and the spinning of wheels in ruts, longer lives and more dementia, but that is another story). Education not only supposedly rids us of the poor, the dirty, and the stupid (a la Pinker and E O Wilson), it also supposedly generates the bright sparks who might lead us out of the mess. Just to make myself clear (I hope), schooling, in my opinion, is the practical foundation, or later-built bulwark, of our education myth, which is central to the functioning of a society based on complex networks of dependence and control – so my point does not imply that schooling is separate to education, quite the contrary. On a side note then, I would suspect that if Marx and Hegel worked on the assumption that ‘real learning’ was experientially derived (as you indicate) then they did not actually give this learning its ‘freedom’ – they situated it teleologically, since they insisted that certain factors would lead to a certain type of education. That is, for example, for Marx, industrialisation was necessary (though painful) and industrial struggle was meant to lead to a socialist consciousness not to neo-liberalism. They still believed in education (or learning) as a social motor, that must be implemented either by educators or social and economic forces, rather than learning as an individual pursuit. In terms of a schooling system, I guess, from what you have said, they would prefer a John Dewey approach. Probably, in fact, a Sudbury School approach. I would certainly have preferred to send my own children to a Sudbury-type school, but I would not be under any illusion that, despite all its appeals to experiential learning, it still produces an education because of the fact that it is situated within a society that systematically/foundationally controls, in a complex web of vectors, and therefore educates (education has nothing to do with promoting intelligence, but only with manners, behaviours, and training).

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You ask what I mean by Hegel and movement, and Foucault. What I mean is to juxtapose the notion of a narrative of human development (movement) as the species grows older with the notion of a mode of production. It is Foucault, I think, who explores the essence of the idea of modes of production through his reframing of ‘history’ as genealogy.

I now worry about using any thinkers in correspondence with you, as you seem to want to put me in a philosophical box – perhaps Foucauldian, for example – and I am unsure that is entirely fair, but it might be fair of course. I agree with you about Jacques Bidet for example, but I didn’t write a brief opinion on Bidet in the last piece because my point was only to point out that his interpretation provided a different perspective on Foucault. I wasn’t saying he was right, just seeing if that meant anything to you.

When I used the word pessimistic, in scare quotes, in reference to Foucault I was only referencing a general view that his thinking does not provide a solution, so people view it as ‘pessimistic’.

The aporia you identify in Foucault: that he sees truth as contingent, is exactly the beauty of his thinking for me. Not in the sense of a modern multi-culturalist relativism, but in the sense of different eras, or modes of production – or, better, different ways of living. It is foolish to base a philosophy on the notion that each individual has their own equally valid version of truth, but it is interesting to examine the limits to understanding that become apparent to the sensitive anthropologist when studying radically different cultures, or the historian who studies previous societies. However, this is rarely done, except by such as Marilyn Strathern, Roy Wagner, and Foucault himself. The usual approach of the historian or anthropologist is to believe, in Sherlock Holmes fashion, that with the correctly ground magnifying glass any society and its motivations can be understood. Marxists, for example, might think that any society can be understood by reference to its economic basis, or mode of production – and this is pretty good, but it fails, as Sahlins, Clastres and Baudrillard point out, correctly in my view (though I am not a Sahlinist, Clastreanist, or Baudrillardist), when one considers a society that does not operate to produce.

Others will just project back in time supposed universal (trans-historical) human traits (usually economistic and survivalist) that are evident in the present day, to the past in order to identify motivations and therefore explain the events of the past. Fernand Braudel was the master here, and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie gave this misguided self-assuredness poetic beauty in his study of the Medieval Cathars of Montaillou. But the tradition continues with recent historians such as Yuval Noah Harari who write such nonsense as:

Quote:
On a hike in East Africa 2 million years ago, you might well have encountered a familiar cast of human characters: anxious mothers cuddling their babies and clutches of carefree children playing in the mud; temperamental youths chafing against the dictates of society and weary elders who just wanted to be left in peace; chest-thumping machos trying to impress the local beauty and wise old matriarchs who had already seen it all. [Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind]

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[1] See how ‘pre-history’ myths/stories from around the world are changed to provide lessons we can understand today. For example, there is a lovely film, ‘Atanarjuat’ from Canada, that tells the story of revenge and feud, but whereas in the original versions there is no ending and the feuding continues (there is not even a beginning, the origin of the feud is not given) in the film version there is a degree of forgiveness that establishes peace. The Indigenous writers of this version stated that they changed this to fit with modern, colonialist tropes – that is, if they hadn’t then the story would have said very little to a modern audience (Indigenous included): it would not have given us a lesson, a solution, a future image of peace and happiness… (as in, they all lived happily ever after…)

Noa Rodman
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Oct 12 2017 16:17

What was your correspondence about? The problem is often the lack of a subject/question.

Tom Henry
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Oct 13 2017 10:15

Aaargh! Noa, I had stopped posting here, but your question has brought me momentarily back. I didn’t expect anyone to comment on my post, I just thought that it might be interesting. The correspondence we had was very specific. But the actual topic is not relevant. Really, I should not add what I am about to below, another part of the correspondence, but I will, because, I guess, what does it matter? Perhaps this will elaborate somewhat. It also points to things that I have raised on Libcom for a long while but now have no wish to ‘argue’ for here anymore. Read what I have written as fiction. This does not mean that what I have written is not true.

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What I think is that Marx says (in his final statements on this) that labor is what distinguishes humans from other animals. Therefore, if you like, Marx, is saying that even humans out of society will be labouring as their natural ‘instinct’, like a spiders’ ‘instinct is to make webs, even though in the Grundrisse he writes, correctly, that humans cannot be human (do production, for example, or language) unless they are in society (the Robinson Crusoe bits in Grundrisse and Capital).

In Grundrisse, Marx suggests that a ‘non-social’ human will not be able to do production or language, and argues that even trying to think of a non-social human is absurd (apart from the exception of a Robinson Crusoe). However, this is, in my opinion, in contradiction to the notion I believe he has of ‘the labouring beast’ as I have described at length.

In Capital, Marx runs us through a kind of day in the life of Robinson Crusoe (the exception of a socialized human become an isolated individual). Marx separates his productive functions (those things that enable his ‘material’ survival and comfort) from ‘recreation’, that is, those things that he takes pleasure in, such as religion or praying (see note below). Thus we see here a kind of realm of necessity and a realm of freedom, and Marx says that whether one ‘realm’ ‘occupies a greater space in his total activity’ depends on the magnitude of the (material) difficulties to be overcome.

The ‘problem’ here is not around commodities or value, but around the idea of labor.

The ‘Robinsonades’ for Marx, in Grundrisse, project back in their literature in order to ‘anticipate’, or justify, modern civil and economic society. They do this, Marx suggests because they are arguing that the social dependence typical in modern society is prefigured in the natures of humans when they lived more independently. Marx disagrees with this trajectory though. He argues that the past for humans was deeply social and dependent and the present is unsocial and independent. This is, of course, the whole basis for his arguing for a return to sociality and the sublating of alienation.

Now, without agreeing at all with the ontology of labor that the Robinsonades evince [indicate], I do think that the human trajectory from independence to dependence is correct. I base this on the self-sufficiency of ‘hunter-gatherers’ and the refusals of nomads and the like to become incorporated into States. I also base it on the fact that in modern society everything is so connected globally, and becoming more so by the minute, that it seems fairly obvious that humans (who do not know each other) in general, as a mass, are simultaneously denied proper ‘human’ sociality while at the same time being deeply (economically) dependent on each other.

Although Marx reverses Rousseau’s trajectory of independence to dependence in a formal, ‘technical’, sense (eg., labor becomes free on a market, but laborers aren’t really free), there is no real examination of the effects of the global economy that arises in capitalism in this sense. On the other hand, one could say that Marx kind of argues that capitalism provides the means to global self-sufficiency. A ‘self-sufficiency’ that rests on the material needs of humanity being facilitated [enabled to exist] to a certain degree (enough global abundance of whatever). But this is not really self-sufficiency, it is dependence. Communism in practice relies on the whole, global, democratic/economic structure that provides for ‘our’ needs to be kept in place. The reason it is dependence (in a bad way) is because people are going to have to depend on people they do not know to keep doing the right [moral and productive] thing. This is the dilemma raised in works comparing ‘society’ (which they see around them) to what they imagine is a ‘community’ (that they must rely on ‘secondary’ sources, and postulations, to describe and posit), such as in the book by Ferdinand Tonnies, or in Durkheim’s designation of organic and mechanical solidarity, etc. It is, perhaps in the end, a problem, simply, of scale [the State arises, in my opinion, when people are trapped in one location and their numbers grow, this, then, is the cause of La Boetie’s ‘misfortune’].

But to admit this is to undermine the ‘project of the Enlightenment’ and the project of radical democracy and communism itself [radical democracy – see F. Lordan, for example - is communism]. Rousseau, before Marx, of course, sensed the impossibility of this in his writing and decided that all one could do now was to make the best of a bad job, that is, involve oneself in politics and social life in order to keep the rulers and such - the bastards - ‘honest’.

Note: What keeps people alive? Is it their ‘survival instinct’? In our society we may spend a lot of time thinking that eating and going to the toilet and making tools and making a living keeps us alive. But is this particular prioritising actually an expression of the ‘disenchantment’ with life (or at least it’s replacement with another, perhaps particularly boring, enchantment) and a kind of ‘survival sickness’ - one that is questioned by Durkheim’s observation of the modern epidemic of the ‘suicide of sadness’?

Noa Rodman
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Oct 13 2017 13:18

So like I guessed, there wasn't an actual subject/question, just several "issues" which apparently you happen to find interesting.

Tom Henry
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Oct 14 2017 01:13

Your lack of skill in comprehension, exhibited on several threads here, and your subterranean nastiness are quite frustrating. You need to loosen up and read things without, what I perceive as, anger. There was nothing in my posts beyond a contemplation of aporia in discussion, I added the second post just for you, but you didn't even read the first paragraph correctly. There is no point discussing anything with you because you are, basically, in my honest opinion, a bit thick. Just because you can translate stuff and explore old texts and find them on the web does not make you intelligent. Intelligence is to do with self-reflection (reflexivity), self awareness, honesty, and the ability to be flexible in one's thinking when presented with the panorama of the world. We fell out before because you majorly misunderstood something then tried to hide the misunderstanding under a barrage of bluster. I stopped posting for a short while then because I wondered if your poor level of comprehension and honesty was reflective of the whole site. You have succeeded in winding me up again, hahaha, but I am gone now, for other reasons. I am sure you will add something to this in your usual style, or one of your friends will, but I can't guarantee that I will be reading it. Despite your armoured personality (as I see it from how you engage here) and your hostility, I wish you well.

Noa Rodman
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Oct 14 2017 07:22

Yes you claim there was an actual topic, a very specific one even, but I simply don't believe it (it's probably something very broad/nebulous). Why so coy about it? (this isn't hostility) I just believe that a general problem with discussions is that they don't have a clear subject/question to be addressed and everyone just throws in what they personally find interesting. I appreciate that you post excerpts from correspondence; indeed I argue that people shouldn't be afraid to re-post interesting discussions from closed/secret facebook groups to open forums like libcom (of course without the names of posters). I also appreciate that you don't try to locate the problem with discussions simply in the nature of the medium (fb/twitter vs. forums).

(as for translating old texts, of course that doesn't make one intelligent, but why imagine that I/you have formulated some new idea, when it was expressed better long ago)