The self as painting: we become who we are through repetition and representation. Encumbered only by our imagination and the culture in which we find ourselves, we craft ourselves through iterated projects of self-representation. We might find the materials available to us limiting, in which case we might seek out a more diverse palette of cultural ideas through which to express that which we are and wish to be. We might also seek to refine our technique, extending the range of our potential selves by expanding our capacities to represent them. But the process is fundamentally repetitive. We begin within constraints but once we start painting, it’s up to us what we do. The freedom exercised through this is one of redescription, in Richard Rorty’s sense, something which Roy Bhaskar once critiqued as relying on a ‘free-wheeling’ conception of freedom: it doesn’t hook on to the world, to the definitive ways in which things are at any given point in time, with all the constraints and limitations which this entails. 

Its appeal rests on the prospect of everlasting freedom. We can dispense with any one painting once we grow dissatisfied, throwing it away to restart in pursuit of ever richer and more vivid representations of our self. But there is an element of fantasy in this, refining our representation of self potentially at the cost of losing touch with the reality of who we are and where we are at any given moment. To craft the self as painting represents a private project of self-creation. It approaches the challenges of existence in an aesthetic register, one which cuts us off from our selves and from others in an ever-so subtle way, while holding out the (always retreating) promise of endless freedom in inner life, whatever the world out there holds for us and what we care about. 

The self as sculpting: through a sustained engagement with the material we find in our selves and our lives, we gradually produce the person we aim to be through our crafting of self. The process is subtractive, rather than additive. We select, refine and remove in a way that is path-dependent, often finding unexpected limitations which follow from the whole sequence of past choices we have made. The further we go in this process, the less room for manoeuvre we have because our form becomes progressively more concrete with time. To become who we are depends on what was latent with us, but how this comes to take the form it does depends on the world we have found ourselves in and how we have chose to make our way through it. 

We shape the clay but we do not choose it and our understanding of the range of possibilities latent within it will always be constrained by circumstance and experience. When the promise of the protean self is ubiquitous, tempting us with the idea that the only limit on who we can be is our imagination, the limitations of the clay can seem suffocating. But there is a freedom within these constraints. A profound, challenging and subtle freedom which refuses the reduction of existence to aesthetics. 

Lovely spot by Chris Hedges from a book I read many years ago which, as far as I can tell, made nearly zero impression on me at the time. This quotes from Rorty’s Achieving Our Country:

Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

In contrast to the scorn which Rorty’s name now provokes in some quarters, it’s arresting to see the esteem in which he was held by Roy Bhaskar in the late 80s, albeit in the context of a trenchant philosophical critique. He commends Rorty’s “eloquent critique of the epistemological problematic” but intends to argue that Rorty remains captive to this problem field in ways he himself fails to recognise (Bhaskar 1989: 146). In doing so, he advocates a philosophical post-narcissism which is capable of elaborating “non-anthropocentric pictures of being” through taking Rorty’s project of ‘de-divinisation’ and pursuing it much further than Rorty was either willing or able to do (Bhaskar 1989: 147).

His initial target is Rorty’s account of science, particularly his easy imputation of chronic success in “the prediction and control of nature”. In this claim Rorty reveals himself to have accepted Hempelian assumptions about natural science, in effect committing himself to a basically positivist account. Much of Bhaskar’s critique proceeds from systematically exploring the ambiguities which are entailed by Rorty’s failure to distinguish between the intransitive (ontological) and transitive (epistemological) dimensions of science. Once we begin to draw this distinction, Rorty’s constant invocations of ‘redescription’ come to seem much more modest in their conclusions, though Rorty himself fails to recognise this:

Thus redescribing(td) the past in a revolution way can cause(id) radical new changes, including a new identity, self-definition or auto-biography: but it cannot retrospectively cause(id) old changes, alter the past (as distinct from its interpretation). It is not surprising that Rorty should slip from transitive to intransitive uses of terms like ’cause’ – it is endemic to empirical realism, the epistemological definition of being in terms of (a particular empiricist concept of) experience. (Bhaskar 1989: 152).

Bhaskar’s point is not to impute anti-realism to Rorty, though the latter surely does come to this in his later work. For Bhaskar “the crucial questions in philosophy are not whether to be a realist or an anti-realist, but what sort of realist to be (an empirical, conceptual transcendental or whatever realist); whether one explicitly theorises or merely implicitly secretes one’s realism and whether and how one decides, arrives at or absorbs one’s realism” (Bhaskar 1989: 153). Bhaskar is in agreement with Rorty’s repudiation of the ‘Archimedean point’ outside human history and the notion of ‘correspondence’ as standing between world and language. However he finds it problematic, as well as internally inconsistent, for Rorty’s realism to adopt such a whiggish approach to actually existing science – imputing a continual extension of our capacity to ‘control and intervene’ with one hand while bracketing the philosophy of science with another. He shares Rorty’s anti-foundationalism and applauds his  “vigorous assault on its attendant ocular metaphors, mirror imagery and overseer conception of philosophy” (Bhaskar 1989: 157).

So what’s the problem? Rorty’s peculiarly positivistic stance finds expression in his assumption that an individual represents a closed system. Bhaskar addresses this point in a dense critique which I won’t attempt to summarise but is an astonishingly accomplished analysis which is worth studying in detail (Bhaskar 1989: 161-162). His attention is to better understand “A Tale of Two Rortys”: a tension which runs through his work and precludes him from offering either an adequate understanding of scientific activity or a sustainable account of human freedom. In essence he finds himself reproducing a linguistified version of the Kantian distinction between people as empirical selves and as moral agents. Rorty is attempting to combine a physicalism which sees individuals as closed causal systems, in which it is possible (in principle) to predict every movement of a person’s body by reference to microphysical states, with an affirmation of the discursive freedom of human beings.

However it is this freedom to ‘re-describe’ which is the cause of all the problems. He fails to distinguish between objects changing and requiring a new description and an unchanged object being redescribed. In this sense ‘redescription’ comes to be detached from the characteristics of the objects being redescribed. Yet this is central to Rorty’s account of human freedom:

Man is the describing, redescribing being. Among the entities man can describe in a new, and abnormal, way, is himself. By making a new, incommensurable description of herself ‘stick’, she makes it true; and thus ‘gives birth to’ (to use Harold Bloom’s term) or ‘creates’ herself – which is to say ‘overcomes’ her previous or past self. Moreover, only by describing herself in a totally novel way can she capture or express her idiosyncrasy, uniqueness – or rather achieve it, achieve her individuation – for anything else would reduce her to a (more or less complex set of formula(e), a token of a type (or set of types). Such radical self-redescription (which could be nicknamed ‘me-‘ or ‘we-‘ description) is the highest form of description. For not only does the redescription redescribe the describer; but in the process of redescription – of wining it, of making it stick, of achieving recognition for it – it makes the (re)description true; so achieving the identity of subject and object, by creating it. (Bhaskar 1989: 171)

On this picture we are left with a notion of freedom as “caprice, discourse, capricious discourse and creative discourse” (Bhaskar 1989: 173). Even this highest form of freedom within Rorty’s account, the possibility of ‘creative discourse’, falls short because it operationalises freedom in abstraction from the material dimension of social life. Rorty’s account makes it difficult to see how we could ever come to identify or transform structures which engender a diminution of human freedom. It also fails to recognise the constraining effects they may have on freedom even in his own narrow understanding of it. As Bhaskar observes, “it is now easy to see how the notion that ‘man is always free to choose new descriptions’ can encourage the voluntaristic position that man is always free to choose any description” (Bhaskar 1989: 176). Rorty’s discursive freedom should not be repudiated in and of itself but should rather be contextualised in terms of a much deeper sense of freedom and, crucially, a notion of emancipation which “depends upon the transformation of structures rather than just the amelioration of states of affairs” (Bhaskar 1989: 178).

Since reading this astonishing book by Neil Gross earlier in the year I have been increasingly aware of the latent influence of pragmatism on my thought. I used to really like Richard Rorty but came to think it was just a phase, explicable in terms of the resources his work gave me to articulate my gnawing dissatisfaction with the philosophy I was studying at the time. However since the Neil Gross book sparked this particularly intensive bout of theoretical naval gazing, it’s become obvious to me that I was slightly too hasty in declaring pragmatism a phase. There’s a significant (Peircean) pragmatist influence in Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity which has in turn shaped how I do sociology, as well as how I understand what it is I do,  more than anything else. There’s also a significant pragmatist impulse within the work of Nicos Mouzelis was has, in the last couple of years, strongly shaped my understanding of the means and ends of sociological theory.

However there’s also the neo-pragmatist sensibility which, in retrospect, was what attracted me to Rorty in the first place. I’m currently in the process of occasionally going back to his work to consider what this sensibility is and the extent to which it’s compatible with the kind of social realism I’m now entirely persuaded by (i.e. ontological realism, epistemic relativism, judgemental rationality, the social as open system, fallibilism, a relational & emergentist ontology). One of the things Mouzelis has helped me to realise is that my interest in these questions is predominately practical, which conversely explains my frustration with the sort of philosophy I used to study. I want to understand how these debates do or do not have practical implications for how people study the social world. I want to understand how theoretical discourse is embedded with conflicting or collaborative networks of practitioners framed by intellectual traditions and how these interactions in turn reproduce or transform those traditions and shape the environment in which future practitioners will do their work.

It’s in thinking about what people actually do with theory that I’ve come back to Rorty’s notion of strong misreading, which appropriately enough seems to have been derived from a wilful misreading of Harold Bloom’s concept of the same name. This is an approach to reading which comes quite naturally to me:

The critic asks neither the author nor the text about their intentions but simply beats the text into a shape which will serve his own purpose. He makes the text refer to whatever is relevant to that purpose. He does this by imposing a vocabulary – a “grid,” in Foucault’s terminology – on the text which may have nothing to do with any vocabulary used in the text or by its author, and seeing what happens. The model here is not the curious collector of clever gadgets taking them apart to see what makes them work and carefully ignoring any extrinsic end they may have, but the psychoanalyst blithely interpreting a dream or a joke as a symptom of homicidal mania …. The strong misreader, like Foucault or Bloom, prides himself on the same thing, on being able to get more out of the text than its author or its intended audience could possibly have found there … The strong misreader doesn’t care about the distinction between discovery and creation, finding and making. He doesn’t think this is a useful distinction, any more than Nietzsche or James did. He is in it for what he can get out of it, not for the satisfaction of getting something right.

– Richard Rorty, The Rorty Reader, Pg 131

I find this notion much more challenging now than I did when I first encountered it seven years ago as a masters student. I take Rorty’s point to be that a preoccupation with uncovering the truth of the text, finding the key which will allow us to unlock the code concealed within, distracts from the real business of intellectual discourse: keeping the conversation going. So while his advocacy of this could be seen as violently deconstructive, it seems much more helpful to me to foreground the constructive notion incipient within it – if we move beyond the register of correct and incorrect interpretation then we begin to have much more fruitful (and interesting) conversations which build on a text and move beyond it.

This is where I see a compatibility between the neo-pragmatist sensibility and social realism. A sociologically self-aware and methodologically sensitive social realism offers us standards of utility in relation to potential (mis)readings of texts which Rorty’s aestheticism tends to shut down. So the social realist strong misreader wants theoretical texts to provoke interesting and useful conversations about how the conceptual insights of the text can be practically applied to the study of the social world. The point is not to say that theoretical discourse should be subjugated to the demands of methodologists and practitioners, as a ‘standing reserve’ of intellectual resources waiting to be mined, but simply to say that talking about theory doesn’t necessitate that we adopt the conceptual and normative standards endorsed and enforced by the theoreticians.

Though having said all this, I delayed my PhD by a month earlier this summer when I was consumed by the sudden anxiety, prompted by encountering a pathetically facile misreading, that the critique of Giddens in the first chapter of my thesis was predicated on a comparable misconstrual. So I diligently returned to his books in order to reassure myself that I had indeed discovered the truth of the text.  I’m not sure how to square either this concern or my response to it with what I’ve written above. I can think of other examples, which I’m not going to write about lest this post become far too long. But there does seem to be a theory-practice inconsistency here which intrigues me.

I’m also concerned that ‘strong misreading’ licenses my eclecticism in a negative way and that, on some level, it appeals to me because I’m someone who tends to read widely but shallowly. So making a virtue of productive misinterpretation, ‘getting more from the texts than the authors intended’, in fact only serves to free me from the nagging feeling that I’ve not read deeply enough into an area to justifiably make the claims that I want to make. Given the general direction of travel within intellectual life, in which professional rewards goes to those who can generate novelty by combining existing ideational material in new and attention-grabbing ways, there’s also something potentially subversive about slow reading. Having spent the summer blogging my way through Margaret Archer’s recent books I can certainly see the appeal of doing this. But is this necessarily driven by the impulse to find the ‘truth of the text’ or could it simply be a particular sort of intellectual conversation which can only take place when it is grounded on a concerned and attentive reading? So rather than accurate or inaccurate could we usefully think about attentiveness or inattentiveness?

This post is an example of sitting down to write one thing and in fact writing another. I intended to write something quick about Rorty’s notion of ‘strong misreading’ and instead ended up writing something much more exploratory, in which I raised a number of questions which had been inchoately rattling around in my head for the last few months. If you accept my understanding of how I use blogging (often as an externalisation of an internal conversation) then this post could be seen as an example of what I’m interested in with the ‘neo-pragmatist sensibility’. I had a particular object (a specific concept articulated by a specific philosopher) which i intended to write about and, through doing so, I found myself writing about  many other things as well. This is a peculiarly monological example of what interests me about ‘productive’ conversations. The intellectual standards we endorse and enforce have implications for kinds of conversations, external or otherwise, which they give rise to.

Even though I reject Rorty’s aestheticism, in which he judges the value of these conversations in entirely aesthetic terms*, I think his sensitivity to the dialogical consequences of intellectual norms is very important. I guess a long term project of mine, albeit one that’s a million miles away from crystallising into any sort of concrete form, would be to try and recover this impulse so as to rearticulate it within a generic framework of social theory working at a level of generality which encompasses everything that shares the belief in the possibility of social knowledge to be produced through social scientific inquiry. Theoretical schism bores the hell out of me (though I think some of the issues at stake are sometimes important in a practical sense) and, as divisive a figure as Rorty is philosophically, it increasingly seems to me that there are elements of his work which could be recovered and reconstituted as a productive resource for social scientific practice.

*How could he do otherwise given that he has collapsed the distinction between what is rhetoric and what isn’t? This move has always baffled me given that, as far as I can see, it reduces theoretical discourse to the status of crap poetry.

For me there is a spectrum with Margaret Archer on side and Slavoj Zizek on the other. With the former, I want to understand how her body of work fits together and what it is she’s advocating. With the latter, I read him because his books are interesting and enjoyable, but I couldn’t care less if I have interpreted him correctly or otherwise. I think I could immediately place any author on this spectrum by categorising my affective orientation to them. However I don’t understand why I place them where I do or how the latent systematicity of my reactions coheres (or doesn’t) with the reflections above.

I’m suddenly thinking back to something Stephen Turner said to me a couple of years ago. He pointed out that Rorty, who taught Turner, had the most encyclopaedic knowledge of the philosophical canon he had ever encountered (or a claim to that effect). So perhaps this is how to square the anxious circle I described above? That the responsible strong misreader must first have a solid grounding in strong reading?

The process of de-divinization which I described in the previous two chapters would, ideally, culminate in our no longer being able to see any use for the notion that finite, mortal, contingently existing human beings might derive the meanings of their lives from anything except other finite, mortal, contingently existing human beings.

– Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Pg 45

I’m finally in the process of reading this intellectual biography of Richard Rorty by Neil Gross. I’ve intended to for a few years now, given my long term fascination with Rorty, however it was only recently that I had it pointed out to me that I’d find the substantive analytical themes of the book interesting (given my research on culture, reflexivity and biography).

I originally read Rorty as part of an MA in Philosophy and Social Theory at the University of Warwick. I’d completed a BA in philosophy at UCL which was almost entirely analytical and what intellectual satisfaction I derived from it was largely a matter of engaging with the challenge of articulating my profound  dissatisfaction with, well, everything really. I’d gone to Warwick to do an MA in continental philosophy but, after a few weeks, I’d encountered social theory and sociology for the first time and realised that my difficulty was with philosophy itself rather than a particular approach to philosophical practice. However this was a gradual process of my understanding changing, with an underlying direction of travel manifesting itself through lots of situational disputes in particular substantive areas of inquiry e.g. I got fixated on Rawls for a year because my understanding of this meta-theoretical frustration was most comprehensive in terms of his work. But then I read Richard Rorty and suddenly it all fell into place: defined in my memory by a debate with the two professors leading a social theory seminar where one (now my supervisor) asked me “why are you studying  philosophy then?” and I realised that I had no idea… fast forward 5 years later and I’m on the verge of completing a PhD in Sociology and am extraordinarily pleased that I made the move, in the process avoiding my planned PhD about changing ideas of the individual in liberal thought which, to put it mildly, would have been unlikely to hold my interest.

What really interests me in retrospect about this is the apparent homology between Rorty’s intellectual trajectory (analytical philosophy to continentally infused pragmatism to cultural theorist – though Gross usefully warns against overdrawing the stages of this movement) and the one I underwent which was sparked by his work, as well as how much, if any, of this effect can be attributed causally to the homology itself? Did the order in which I engaged with Rorty’s writing (Contingency, Irony and Solidarity* then Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature before working through the philosophical papers) play a role in the effect they were able to have on me? Did the contextually bound intellectual frustrations he was working through in these writings offer, in virtue of their specific context, the particular configuration of ideational resources which I needed to work through my own intellectual frustrations in my own specific intellectual context at the time?

One of the truly admirable things about Gross’s book is the manner in which he resists the simplified trajectory of Rorty’s work which I’ve just sketched, showing how the seeds of his ultimate move away from philosophy were present at the outset of his career. His concern for contextualism and the history of ideas were always there, as was his concern for edification and disinterest in the narrowly technical, but his later project needed many things: he needed Davidson, Sellers, Goodman et al to escape from analytic philosophy in a way that was consistent with it, he needed Kuhn to operationalise his contextualism and, crucially, he needed his career and his life itself (as well as the broader social and culture context within which they were situated) to be configured in such a way as to make this ‘escape’ compatible with the exigencies of living in the manner to which he had become accustomed.

Gross usefully summarises his sociological approach to the study of Rorty:

Without abandoning the standard of fidelity to the archival materials, we can construct a more theoretically informed explanation for Rorty’s moves if we see him, not as a being spinning out ideas on the basis of a transhistrocially rational consideration of their objective merits or as someone pushed this way and that by his personality or character  but as a social actor embedded over time in a variety of institutional settings, each imposing specific constraints on his opportunities and choices and influencing him with respect to the formation of his self-understanding, his evaluation of the unworthiness of various lines of thought, and ultimately his intellectual output. (pg 330)

The book doesn’t exactly ‘solve’ the problem I’m grappling with in my own work. But it does make it somewhat clearer. In an (as yet unpublished) paper on asexuality I’ve argued that synchronic relations between the account an individual is trying to give of themselves (to themselves in internal conversation and/or to external others) and the cultural resources which are situationally available to be drawn upon in this self-articulation works diachronically to shape their socio-cultural exploration. If someone doesn’t experience sexual attraction but finds that the cultural resources they have available to them only permit them to articulate that facet of themselves in terms of pathology (e.g. “I’m fucked up”, I”m broken”, “there must be something wrong with my hormones” rather than “there are people who are asexual and I’m one of them and that’s fine”) then it will, if they feel this self-pathologisation is unsatisfying or unsustainable, lead them to search for cultural resources which would enable them to give a better account of themselves.

I’m pretty confident of the empirical basis of this argument in terms of asexuality but I’m struggling to apply it elsewhere beyond quite general terms. Central to what I’m trying to say is the idea of the discursive gap (credit Ruth Pearce) as an integral category for understanding interiority in a sociological way. On this view self-articulation (again either inwardly or outwardly directed) relies on certain cognitive affordances, many of which are introjected resultants of past social or cultural interaction, as well as cultural affordances, which may in future contribute to the individual’s stock of cognitive affordances. At any given time there is always a ‘gap’ between what we are trying to say and the affordances which are situationally available to us and  this gap ‘drives’* the direction of our cultural agency over time

One of my intentions here is to ‘fuzz up’ (as Rorty would have put it) the distinction between the discursive and the pre-discursive. I don’t think it’s possible to understand either adequately, unless we see the relations between them, as well the centrality that movements from the inchoate to the articulate play in shaping who we are and how we make our way through the world. Something which I think Charles Taylor captures very sensitively:

Thus consider someone who has been ashamed of his background. This is what we say (and also he says) retrospectively; at the time, this was not at all clear to him. He feels unease, lack of confidence, a vague sense of unworthiness. Then he is brought to reflect on this. He comes to feel that being ashamed for what you are, apologizing for your existence, is senseless. That on the contrary, there is something demeaning precisely about feeling such shame, something degrading, merely supine, craven. So he goes through a revolution like that expressed in the phrase ‘black is beautiful’. Now the shame disappears; or sinks to a merely residual unease like the craving for a cigarette after meals of the ex-smoker; and is judged as merely another such nagging emotional kink, not as a voice telling him something about his predicament. (Taylor 1985a: 69)

*I now profoundly disagree with pretty much everything in this book. But along with Taylor’s Philosophical Arguments and Sources of the Self, as well as perhaps MacIntyyre’s After Virtue, it’s the only book I can think of which effectively rewired my conceptual apparatus and left me ‘seeing’ the world in a different way afterwards. 

**The fact I’m using ‘hydraulic’ terms like ‘drives’ is what I mean when I say I’m struggling with this.