Affect theory and its disaffections

It turns out that the single most visited post on this blog is, still, from 2011, discussing Ruth Leys’ rather wonderful take-down of affect theory in Critical Inquiry (apart from anything else, this is an important lesson about always giving the things you write a decent title – a lesson I learnt a long time ago). Leys’ CI critique of theories of affect in the humanities and social sciences is one part of her broader genealogy of the human sciences. Her new book, The Ascent of Affect, is, she says, the third in a trilogy alongside Trauma and From Guilt to Shame. The new book is a sustained critical engagement with debates within and over the sciences of emotion that provide the more or less acknowledged background of social theories of affect and non-representationalism (in so far as there is any claim at all in these theories that the grand metaphysical generalisations one can derive from reading Deleuze and others aren’t just made up – to a considerable extent, these theoretical fields inadvertently offer themselves up as exemplars of the ‘autonomy of affect’, to the degree that ontological claims are simply asserted as beyond dispute and thereby effectively immunised from any critical scrutiny). The emphasis in Leys’ account is on disputes and disagreements within this scientific field – the dimension which makes any authoritative appropriation of such fields to settle arguments within the social sciences and humanities so problematic.

The Ascent of Affect came at the end of a year that I had begun by reading Linda Zerilli’s equally wonderful A Democratic Theory of Judgment, a work of political theorising not of genealogy, but one which also engages critically with the turn to affect in recent cultural and especially political theory. In her book, Zerilli takes my characterisation of the layer cake ontology of non-representational theory as pretty much capturing the essence of affect theory more generally, which is very flattering. The combination of an architectural vocabulary of levels with a vocabulary of temporal priority (all those feelings and inclinations kicking in before anyone is even conscious of it…) is the recurrent rhetorical feature of a whole genre of affect theory, and it connects it with a much broader cultural world of psychologised neuro-commentary (Jessica Pykett has recently elaborated on some of the implicit spatial assumptions one finds in popularised versions of neuroscience). It’s a feature that discloses what I would be inclined to call, ripping the phrase off from Gilbert Ryle, the logical geography of action that distinguishes this field – this theme is just now beginning to come clear for me as the focus of next book, now that the flurry of excitement associated with publication of the last one has died down.

Zerilli presents Ruth Leys and myself as providing two distinctive critical perspectives – as ‘affect theory critics’ – which again is flattering (I only ever wrote one paper and a couple of blogposts, whereas you can find the emerging outlines of Leys’ more recent sustained critique not only in her Critical Inquiry piece but also in those earlier books as well). Both Zerilli and Leys present me as accusing affect theorists of ‘cryptnoromativism’ – of not being able to able to defend their normative preferences with reasons because, as Zerilli puts it, for them reasons “always trail after affect-driven preferences”. Leys, on the other hand, sees the problem as an inability or unwillingness on behalf of advocates of the autonomy of affect to take any normative position at all – as she puts it in her new book, for affect theorists “preferring democracy to despotism is life preferring tea to coffee”. The stronger point she is making is that affect theory closes down any sense of disagreement as a dimension of life – it’s a theme developed much more explicitly in Todd Cronan’s critical account of the affective turn in aesthetics in Against Affective Formalism– where the recurring argument is that appeals to the causal power of affect have the effect of closing down any space not just of intentionality but also therefore of interpretation, and that herein lies the political unconscious of those appeals, registered in the erasure of any scope for legitimate disagreement or dispute. Leys uses my argument to specify her own point, suggesting that there is no a contradiction at all between avowing progressive causes and affirming the power of affective priming but a considerable degree of consistency precisely because the former are indeed taken to be mere personal preferences (strictly speaking, I don’t think I did rely on a sense of performative contradiction in my discussion of non-representational ontologies, which is not after all the same thing as cryptonormativism – I happen to think, more generally, that the real problem across these debates is the authoritative appeal to ‘ontology’ (or, ‘the made-up’, let’s call it) in a way that forecloses on the significance of normativity to life, which I think is a rather similar worry to Leys’ worry about the elision of intentionality).

The issue that Leys’ genealogy of disputes over the science of emotions – and especially over the validity of the affect program theory of basic emotions proposed by Sylvan Tomkins, the thinker championed by Eve Kofosky Segwick in the pivotal text in the turn to affect in the humanities – clarified for me is a key contrast, one that cascades through social theory and humanities debates about affect, between two quite distinct images of the social. Noncognitivst and anti-intentional interpretations of the emotions tend to hold to images of isolated monads, housing a brain, buffeted by external stimuli. The social here stands as an external, totalising environment (call it an ‘atmosophere’, perhaps?). It’s a very traditional image. Leys reconstructs  a counter-tradition that holds to a view of mindedness as contextual and ecological, and thereby has lots more to say about issues of intentionality. The difference might be captured by the shift in the meaning of ideas about unconscious mental activity which Leys mentions in  her book. The unconscious, in psychoanalysis, is a “dynamic-conflictual” concept, and it only makes any sense against a background assumption that subjectivity is intentional, just not wholly so. This idea is contrasted to a view of unconscious activities “as forms of automatic, nonconscious information processing occurring in computer-style subsystems capable of acting independently of the mind’s conscious control”. It is this second sense of ‘unconscious’, with or without the scientific references, that is the operative usage in arguments in GeographyLand and related fields which champion and/or bemoan the extent to which apparently wilful action is in fact influenced, primed and manipulated in all sorts of ways that are beyond the mind’s control.

The noncognitivist strand of scientific research on emotion, with an emphasis on the on the stark separation and hierarchical ordering of systems of knowing and feeling, clear divisions between insides and outsides, the emphasis on information processing and stimulus response, and its attachment to identifying sub-personal mechanisms, informs an imagination of the social reduced to monadic pre-individuals immersed in totalising atmospheres and subjected to triggers and impulses that wholly shape them. With or without the direct reference, the analogy between this reductive, if not necessarily eliminationist, scientific imagination of the social and the imagination found in humanities and social science fields absorbed by affect theory is, well, uncanny. (There is, I think an interesting line of questioning left unexplored by Leys about the degree to which the divisions within the sciences of emotions might be related to a discernible difference amongst advocates of the importance of affect between strongly anti-intentional advocates of the autonomy of affects, which tend to invest heavily in science as the source of insights into the ontology of affect, and versions of affect theory that redistribute the relations between knowing and feeling, reflecting and doing in more creative ways – the concern, for example, with issues of attachment in Lauren Berlant’s version of affect theory suggests a refashioned understanding of the aboutness of affective dynamics, rather than a wholesale rejection of intentionality).

Zerilli’s discussion of affect theory in political thought is actually rather wary of what she quite rightly identifies as the central emphasis of Leys’ critique – the problem of intentionality (recognition of this issue does not even arise in geographical discussions of these matters, beyond simplistic dismissals of ideas of intentionality and rationality as all a bit old-hat – a sign of the philosophical unseriousness of those discussions, one might suppose). I am tempted to locate Leys’ genealogy of research on emotions as part of a wider “nonsite school” of cultural criticism, since her work clearly shares a number of commitments with the broader project associated with that journal of which she is one of the founding editors – whose mission statement asserts a shared interest in “a set of theoretical topics – the ontology of the work of art, the question of intentionality, the ongoing appeal of different and sometimes competing materialisms – and in part out of opposition to the dominant accounts of those topics.” It should be said that the emphasis in much of the work associated with nonsite.org, in Cronan’s book already mentioned for example or in the work of Walter Benn Michaels, is primarily upon redeeming a certain sort of concept of artistic intentionality. I am personally not convinced that artistic practice provides the best paradigm for thinking about intentionality, and one of the important features of Leys’ book is that she locates issues of cognitivism, noncognitivism, and intentionality more squarely in a philosophical debates, centring in no small part on issues rehearsed in the ‘McDowell/Dreyfus debate’ a while ago now. This is rather more interesting, and more ordinary, ground upon which to locate discussions about the relations between embodiment and mindedness, the human and the nonhuman, rationality and intentionality.

Leys’ book raises important questions about the ways in which interdisciplinary work depends on the selective invocation of examples and on claims to speak authoritatively in one field on the basis of privileged grasp of settled knowledge in other fields. One of the central concerns of the nonsite.org ‘school’, if there is such a thing, is a focus on the implications for understandings of intentionality and interpretation of the automatism built into various artistic mediums – painting, photography, film, and so on. In one of those odd coincidences that make reading more than one thing at the same time fun, I was reading Leys’ book at the same time as I came across the cricket writer Christian Ryan’s Feeling is the Thing that Happens in 1000th of a Second, a book all about the photography of Patrick Eagar, and specifically the photos he took in the summer of 1975 (amongst other things, it’s a book that thematises the way in which photography might constitute the conditions for nostalgia – a subtext of Ryan’s story is that much of the cricket in that summer was actually a bit crap, and he presents 1975 as a cricketing year that mattered primarily because of Eagar’s photography, in all sorts of ways – a summer when “the photography of the ballet mattered more than the ballet”). Ryan’s book is all about the relationship between chance, luck, accidents and the skills and habits of the photographer, mediated by the automatisms of cameras and remote controls. Ryan’s book should be read alongside Gideon Haigh‘s Stroke of Genius, a book about Victor Trumper, but more precisely about the making and after-life of the single most famous cricket photo of them all – both tell stories about what we can learn about habitual, embodied skilled action (of the photographer as well as cricketers) from attending the process of its representation (OK, so that’s how I read them, not least ‘coz I was reading Leys’ book at the same time as reading Ryan’s, which reminded me of this dimension of Haigh’s book which was my Christmas book last year – and not least because Ley’s narrative of disagreements over the science of emotions revolves in part around a critique of the rather peculiar way in which photographs of facial expressions secure the authority of Paul Ekman’s influential research on basic emotions). And remembering the centrality of baseball to the McDowell/Dreyfus debate, it struck me that this particular coincidence is slightly less than wholly contingent on my own odd interests – one could do a lot worse than these two recent cricket books if one wants to be provoked to think more about the relationships between embodied skills, rule following, automatism, expertise, luck and the felt sense of what is doable and sayable that are at the centre of the scientific and philosophical debates that Leys dissects – there is, after all, no reason to take cricket any less seriously than the disputed fields of science that remain so attractive to certain strands of cultural and political theory. And these two books aren’t really about cricket anyway (books which are tend to be really boring) – they are about mediation, which might just be the concept that holds the key to moving beyond the dead-ends down which non-representational anti-intentionalism has led critical thought.

 

Affect and Judgment

IMG_2480For anyone out there interested in issues of intentionality, rationality, and, yes, affect (remember that?), a must read is Linda Zerilli’s recent piece ‘The Turn to Affect and the Problem of Judgment’, in New Literary History (it is part of a collection of pieces on the relations between feminism and ordinary language philosophy, including other contributions by Alice Crary, Toril Moi and Sandra Laugier). Zerilli is one my very favourite thinkers, and I am looking forward to her forthcoming book A Democratic Theory of Judgment.

Zerilli’s locates the outbreak of affect theory in a longer tradition of seeking to avoid excessively intellectualist images of action, including Gilbert Ryle and a broad phenomenological tradition. The really significant contribution of her essay is, I think, to zoom-in on and clarify how the sort of critique of affect theory developed by Ruth Leys and others requires a clearer elaboration of the notion of intentionality. Her essay is also important for explicitly connecting this reconstruction of intentionality to the on-going debate sparked by the disagreement between Hubert Dreyfus and John McDowell about the interpretation of ‘nonconceptual’ and ‘conceptual’ dimensions of action. This is a much more interesting philosophical terrain upon which to engage in the issues at stake in considering questions of action, embodiment, intentionality, and rationality, compared to the rather enclosed worlds of what has become canonized as ‘Continental Philosophy’. There is an interesting subtext to that debate, which revolves around the ways in which spatial metaphors are mobilized by both sides, by Dreyfus with his talk of upper floors and lower floors, and in McDowell’s reconfiguration of ideas of inside and outside and extension and reach to reconfigure mind-body relations.

Zerilli develops a criticism of the ways in which affect theory holds fast to a strong separation of the conceptual and nonconceptual, thought and action, cognition and affect, which is most clearly evident in the recourse to layer-cake images of the priority of the latter over the former (I’ve argued here before that what is involved in the flight from the registers of subjectivity to assertions of the prepersonsal is a more or less acknowledged claim to monopolize a kind of 3rd person perspective on other people’s actions. It’s a move in which this style of theory displays it’s own defining lack of affect, one might say, that is, it’s lack of capacity to relate to a situation in a sensitive and appropriate way).

Zerilli grants that affect theory addresses important issues in both philosophy and politics, but points out that the particular framing of these issues in this field of work leaves in place some of the most significant problems of more traditional intellectualist ways of proceeding. Her own elaboration of the way in which intentionality depends upon feeling, rather than being ruined by it, is developed by reference to Cavell and Wittgenstein, along the lines of the account of reflective judgment that she has also discussed via Arendt before.

Anyway, I’m not really doing Zerilli’s essay justice, it’s a very rich discussion that deserves reading and re-reading.

 

McDowell-Dreyfus debate: new collection of essays

KNOBLAUCHFor anyone interested, a new collection of essays on the McDowell-Dreyfus debate, including the original pieces by the two protagonists, and various other essays including pieces by Charles Taylor and Joseph Rouse  reflecting on aspects of their dispute, is just published by Routledge. 

Geography and ethics: the latest installment, again

Some shameless self-promotion – otherwise known as the respectable reason for academics to blog, apparently. The second of my three annual(ish) reports on ‘geography and ethics’ for Progress in Human Geography has now been published in print – a full year after going live online. So it has page numbers now.

This one is rather grandly titled Placing life in the space of reasons, and tries to say why I think geographers might learn something from reading things life the McDowell/Dreyfus debate. The first was on the theme of Justice unbound, and tried to glean a set of connections between various strands of work which might be said to give a priority to injustice in theorising normatively about justice. In my head, these two pieces are meant to be read alongside the third, which is about recent social theory which addresses ‘normative’ things, and suggests an agenda around ‘geographies of worth’ [although this bit might be a bit brief and allusive]. I’m sure no-one reads these pieces like this – I don’t. But that is sort of how they were conceived in the writing.  This last one isn’t up online yet, although rest assured that I will post when it is!

Geography and ethics: placing life in the space of reasons

Following on from a recent post about the first of three progress reports on Geography and Ethics for Progress in Human Geography, the second of these is now published on-line here – it will be published in a print edition subsequently. This report considers the relevance to geography and cognate fields worried about ‘space’, which have tended recently to derive ‘ethics’ as a kind of excess from poststructuralized ontologies, of discussions amongst philosophers who don’t normally show up under the heading of ‘Continental Philosophy’, who have been busy debating issues of naturalism, intentionality, mindedness, embodiment, and normativity in interesting and challenging ways – thinkers like John McDowell, recently in debate with Hubert Dreyfus, Robert Pippin, Robert Brandom, Stanley Cavell. This range of work focuses on the ordinary ways in which normativity inhabits and shapes our practices – so it overlaps in some interesting ways with the social theory projects of, for example, Andrew Sayer, Axel Honneth, and Luc Boltanski, and some others, floating around at the edges of geography debates, but again, not quite managing to become central to those debates – I’ll try to explain how and why in the final one of these reports, which I have to write later this year. And try to do so in about 3000 words. Here is the abstract for the second piece:

“Discussions of ethics in recent human geography have been strongly inflected by readings of so-called ‘Continental Philosophy’. The ascendancy of this style of theorizing is marked by a tendency to stake ethical claims on ontological assertions, which effectively close down serious consideration of the problem of normativity in social science. Recent work on practical reason emerging from so-called ‘Analytical’ philosophy presents a series of challenges to how geographers approach the relationships between space, ethics, and power. This work revolves around attempts to displace long-standing dualisms between naturalism and normativity, by blurring boundaries between forms of action and knowledge which belong to a ‘space of causality’ and those that are placed in a ‘space of reasons’. The relevance of this blurring to geography is illustrated by reference to recent debates about the relationships between rationality and habit in unreflective action. Ongoing developments in this tradition of philosophy provide resources for strengthening a nascent strand of work on the geographies of practical reason that is evident in work on ethnomethodology, behaviour change, and geographies of action.”

After affect(s): Ruth Leys on affect theory

I’m not sure if this is the best way to keep up with exciting theory debates, but I spent an evening this week in a ‘car supermarket’, trying not to fall into a salesman’s traps while also working out whether or not I liked driving an automatic rather than a manual transmission – what do you do with your ‘spare’ foot? In between all this, I stumbled across this announcement of a forthcoming lecture at Duke by Ruth Leys, promising a critique of affect (the things you can do with an iPhone). I will not be in North Carolina next week, but this looks really interesting, and long overdue. The post mentions a forthcoming paper in Critical Inquiry later this year, and Leys mentions in a recent interview that she is writing a book on the relationships between scientific understandings of affects and the affect turn in cultural theory. The interview, from last year, provides a taster of what Leys argument looks like – what is most interesting about this is that she is providing a genealogical analysis of the coherence between the anti-intentionalism of certain fields of psychology and neuroscience and a broad range of ‘affect theory’ in cultural studies and beyond. I was first turned on to Leys work on this stuff by Felicity Callard, who studied with her as a graduate student, and who is also working on the use of scientific authority in the affective turn amongst social scientists and in the humanities. In the interview, Leys explains that “The question that interests me is why so many cultural theorists – geographers, political theorists, new media theorists, and others – are so fascinated by the idea of affect and are so drawn to the work on the affects by certain neuroscientists”. Of course, part of the answer is that the science provides authority for strongly ‘political’ readings of particular models of action, embodiment, habit, and practice.  One thing she talks about in the interview is the degree to which ‘strong’ theories of the autonomy of affect tend to be resolutely dualistic, adopting quite old fashioned styles of materialism in setting embodiment off from the mind, affect from cognition. I think she is dead right – this is a clear feature of debates in human geography about non-representational theory, emotions, and affect, in which remarkably simplistic understandings of intentionality, meaning, or rationality circulate.

I have wondered for a while, and tried to articulate in writing, what is the academic pay-off of constructing non-cognitive dimensions of action or practice in the strongly anti-intentionalist ways as one finds in Deleuzian inflected theory – what is gained by the effacement of intention and meaning from the scene of action, and from the re-distribution of knowing rationality almost entirely onto the figure of the expert-theorist? Leys’ argument, which emerges from earlier work about broader shifts from discourses of guilt to discourses of shame in the study of trauma, pinpoints the way in which claims of scientific authority underwrite a motivated reconfiguration of what counts as political: “The whole point of the general turn to affect among recent cultural critics is to shift attention from the level of political debate or ideology to the level of the person’s subliminal or sub-personal material-affective responses, where, it is held, political influences do their real work”. And she goes on, this authorises “a relative indifference to the role of ideas and beliefs in politics in favour of an ‘ontological’ concern with people’s corporeal-affective experiences of the political images and representations that surround them” (of course, in geography and perhaps some media studies, what is most interesting about this sort of work is precisely that it focuses on a much broader array of affective ‘environments’). This ontologization of affect allows for a dark narrative of bad affects – in which people get manipulated for all sorts of sinister ends; and a nice story about good affects, which is meant to be the positive political inflection of affect theory – although this often turns out to be a rather standard ‘proof’ that subjectivities are much more malleable than we think, and can be best transformed by being exposed to some form of aesthetic disruption or other.

All a bit troubling, once you notice that ‘knowing’ has been entirely evacuated from the field of everyday action inhabited by ordinary people, and is now a capacity reserved entirely for those able to handle what are properly thought of as esoteric (in a Straussian sense) theories of affect. In certain respects, and despite the loud rhetoric of political radicalism that accompanies so much affect theory, this style of cultural theory of ‘the political’ might actually be a symptom of a deeply ingrained, scholastic cynicism about the political virtues of ordinary people.

Leys’ genealogy of the science of affect theory is an important resource for thinking through the politics of the ‘political’ invocation’ of affect in cultural theory and social science. Like the Dreyfus/McDowell debate, it is an example of some proper thinking about the forms of reasoning, demonstration, and indeed evidence that lay behind claims of expertise and authority which often work, certainly in geography, to have a chilling effect on serious thought. One thing her work suggests is that the ‘ontological’ commitments of what is now orthodox affect theory in the social sciences and humanities are, indeed, strongly theoretical – the reference to the authority of cutting-edge life sciences might be much more contentious than it appears (and shouldn’t we know this anyway).  Or maybe we should just call those commitments ‘metaphysical’, in the bad sense.

What is it like to bat? Dreyfus, McDowell and the exemplary game

The first conference I attended after becoming a parent, and therefore experienced in the ‘concentrated’ way described in my last post, was in Boston in 2008. One of the things I did manage to squeeze in between arriving on a Wednesday afternoon, spending two days in presenting, chairing, or discussing, was to go to a baseball game at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. So many highlights: riding a rickshaw through Friday night rush-hour/game-night traffic; singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ at the seventh-innings stretch…

To coincide with the start of the new season that month, The Boston Review published a letter written by the Harvard-based political philosopher John Rawls, in 1981, in which Rawls outlined why he considered baseball to be ‘best of all games’. It turns out that baseball’s superiority to basketball, tennis, football and soccer lies in the degree to which it embodies the virtues which Rawls invested in his own theory of justice as fairness – it has a certain sort of equilibrium, contains aspects of publicity, it is inclusive of plural talents, and it has a temporal rhythm that means that “there is always time for the losing side to make a comeback”. The editors of the magazine noted that Rawls had himself once been an accomplished baseball player, and that he had made reference to baseball in his own academic writing. In his essay ‘Two Concepts of Rules’, Rawls used examples from baseball to make philosophical arguments about what a practice is, and what role rules play in practices (arguments which revolve around the puzzle that running, sliding, and throwing are things people do in all sorts of situations, but that stealing base or striking out are aspects of a practice known as baseball, and yet these events are not reducible to the rules of baseball which define them). It is common enough to use games, of one sort or another, to develop arguments of this sort. I wonder if it matters which games philosophers and social theorists consider best exemplify the most fundamental aspects of human action. Rawls’ brief, half-serious analysis of baseball’s virtues is one example of how certain sports attract the attention of intellectuals – baseball and cricket are the obvious examples, both of which lend themselves to the attention of those with a certain ‘nerdy-academic’ cast of mind. Maybe it’s all the statistics, plus the veneer of ‘literariness’ that attaches itself to lots of the books about both of these sports. And in both cases, they aren’t football.

Baseball turns out to play a significant part in a recent debate between two of the heavyweights of contemporary philosophy, Hubert Dreyfus and John McDowell, played out in the philosophy journal Inquiry in 2007 (although Dreyfus’ initiation of the debate appeared in Topoi). This debate is interesting because it serves as an example of an interesting convergence between what are often labeled Continental and Analytical traditions – Dreyfus, a leading exponent of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, stands here for ‘Continental’, McDowell for ‘Analytical’. These are problematic, even silly terms of course – Simon Glendinning has a lovely little book on this topic, called The Idea of Continental Philosophy. The subject of the Dreyfus and McDowell exchange is how to understand unreflective, embodied action, and differences over how far conceptual capacities extend into the world. They tend to accuse each other of clinging to unacknowledged ‘Cartesian’ dualisms, which tends to be the way with these debates – Rorty accused lots of people of this, Charles Taylor accused him of Cartesianism, and so on and so on. Dreyfus has developed a distinctively non-representational view of embodied action as unreflective, non-rational, non-conceptual – as ‘unminded’. He accuses McDowell of still holding to ‘the myth of the mental’ by presuming that the deconstruction of any clear divide between ‘mind and world’ teaches us that that ‘perception is conceptual all the way out’ (McDowell’s work is interesting to me not least because of just how important spatial vocabularies are to his re-casting of traditional questions of the philosophy of mind; something for which he has been taken to task for by others, such as Simon Blackburn).

Dreyfus’ position is that phenomenology, by which he means primarily Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, teaches us that the capacity to routinely carry out any number of ordinary embodied actions of different levels of complexity without thinking about it is fundamentally a non-conceptual, intuitive capacity, shared with animals and infants. In an entertaining reversal, McDowell then accuses Dreyfus of being the one who holds fast to a Cartesian dualism, by seeking to separate mindedness from intuitive, embodied coping – McDowell reads phenomenology as supporting his recasting of rationality as thoroughly embodied, and suggests that it is Dreyfus who is clinging to a detached conception of rationality.

Now, in the middle of this exchange, the two philosophers end up arguing about Chuck Knoblauch. Knoblauch was an All-Star second-baseman for the all-powerful New York Yankees of the late 1990s and early 2000s. But in 1999, Knoblauch developed a version of the ‘yips’, losing his ability to execute the quick-fire pick-up-and-throw-on-the-run-in-mid-air manoeuvres crucial to his position. Knoblauch was thinking too much, it was widely agreed at the time (he had various off-the-field issues it turns out). Dreyfus invokes Knoblauch as proof for his position, arguing that his skill levels declined because he stopped being absorbed in the activity at hand, but was instead allowing thought and reflection to intrude. Knoblauch’s ‘mental blauch’ (as headlines of the time describe it) shows that mindedness is not an aspect of the immersion involved in ongoing activities of embodied coping, so Dreyfus argues. McDowell takes issue with this reading of Knoblauch’s tribulations – according to him, this case proves his point, that the problem for coping arises when mindedness becomes detached from immersion in activity.

So it turns out that Knoblauch is central to making explicit what is at most at stake in this debate – this is a dispute between two variants of ‘non-representational’ accounts of action, not between a non-representational view and a representational view. Dreyfus stands as the figure for a view in which phenomenological insights correct mistaken views about activity being permeated by conceptual rationality; McDowell thinks phenomenological insights are a ‘supplementation’ to that view, re-ordering how we think of rationality rather than leading to a commitment to notions of non-conceptual or non-rational coping (I like McDowell’s usage of ‘supplementation’ because I have a pet hypothesis about his style of philosophy being similar methodologically to Derrida’s, in so far as it messes with the spatializations of key concepts in philosophical traditions).

The dispute about how to interpret Knoblauch’s freeze is interesting because it underscores one feature about how arguments in this style of philosophy, as well as in social theory, tend to lean on particular exemplars of what a ‘game’ is when they develop arguments about the meanings of concepts such as practice and embodied agency. There is a widely shared tendency to focus on individual, repeated acts within games – throwing, kicking, or taking free-throws in basketball. Oddly, the Dreyfus/McDowell debate might be much more narrowly focussed than Rawls’ discussion, which dates from the 1950s – they are focussed on the sliding/throwing/running aspects of baseball as discrete activities, outside of their wider place in not just particular ‘plays’, but in whole games, seasons, and beyond. Knoblauch’s problem with throwing didn’t end his career. He just got moved to the outfield; he wasn’t paid millions of dollars just as a second-baseman, but also as a batter. And the Yankees still kept winning (besides, Knoblauch has more recently been implicated in on-going scandals about endemic use of performance-enhancing steroids in professional baseball in the 1990s, which might cast an entirely different light on the episodes the philosophers disagree about).

None of which seems terribly philosophical, but it does provide a nice link to an essay by John Haugeland, another important philosopher in these debates, who died earlier this year. Haugeland has a long essay called ‘The Intentionality All-Stars’ (from 1990), re-published in his book Having Thought. He uses the fielding positions on a baseball diamond to map out different philosophical positions on the topic intentionality. He actually focuses on three main positions, using first, second and third base to differentiate thinkers like Searle, Quine, Dennett, Brandom, Heidegger and Sellars (Derrida, Rorty and others are consigned to the outfield, because they don’t really think these issues are that important – and Wittgenstein is shortstop, a joke I think about how he mediates between more rejectionist and more reconstructive positions on this classical topic). Haugeland is only using baseball here as a device to delineate these positions – it’s a mere metaphor in his essay, not part of a central philosophical argument (although he does end with a funny line nodding at Thomas Nagel about the importance of the question “What is it like to be at bat?”). A point I make only to underscore the fact that in other cases, like in Rawls or Dreyfus/McDowell, it might well matter that they use this game, rather than others, to exemplify fundamental philosophical points.

One of the things that McDowell’s position in his debate with Dreyfus suggests is that we might do well to pay heed to the sort of ‘immersed activity’ that is involved in doing intellectual work. There might be an interesting aspect of disavowal and projection involved in academics having to invoke games or dancing in order to elaborate on the relations between knowing that and knowing how (while choosing games which tend to push to the side forms of knowing-with which are implicated in both). The point is made succinctly by an essay by Stephen Jay Gould, collected in Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville, his essays on baseball. Gould’s essay, written contemporaneously to Knoblauch’s freeze, is called ‘The Brain of Brawn’, and refuses to buy into the straightforward dualism in which athletic excellence is presented as wholly opposed to, as either superior to or lesser than, scholarly accomplishment. Gould doesn’t want to interpret Knoblauch’s problem as the intrusion of the brain upon feeling, mind on matter either, and he draws an arresting analogy which cuts straight to the heart of the philosophical debate which Dreyfus and McDowell have more recently staged in part around Knoblauch’s trouble: “Knoblauch’s problem takes the same form as many excruciating impediments in purely mental enterprises with writer’s block as the most obvious example, when obsession with learned rules of style and grammar impedes the flow of good prose. And we surely cannot designate our unblocked mode as less intellectual merely because we cannot easily describe its delights or procedures”. Thinking well, it seems, is something that also might be embedded in intuitively grasped, not-too-reflective coping skills as well.

I’m not sure where Dreyfus and McDowell would stand exactly in Haugeland’s ballpark, although I think it’s somewhere between second and third base – in his account things get more pragmatist, phenomenological, and social as you round second. It’s probably quite crowded there. One thing the Dreyfus/McDowell exchange seems to confirm is that being ‘non-representational’ isn’t much of a discriminator these days – the issue is about different ways of being non-representational. And might it not matter just a little which game you take to be the model of having a ‘feel for the game’ when making arguments about non-representational aspects of action? The Australian philosopher John Sutton, who also works on phenomenology, distributed cognition, and the embodied mind, develops his argument with reference to cricket. More precisely, he uses batting as his favoured example. Batting in cricket is the basis for his argument about how thinking too much disrupts the accomplishment of embodied coping skills, showing how conceptual memory and procedural memory are dynamics aspects of embodied practices. They have batting in baseball too, of course, so maybe the point translates across fields, so to speak. But of course batting in these two games is not quite the same practice, it involves different sorts of coping skills. Sutton’s argument about the importance of memory seems an opening to understanding this difference, in so far as it suggests that the rhizomatic lines of flight passing through any discrete ‘at bat’ or ‘taking guard’ carry markedly different worldly resonances. And I can’t help thinking that all of these arguments amongst philosophers of embodied action might be helped by taking Iris Marion Young’s phenomenological analysis of ‘Throwing like a Girl’ a little more seriously – it reminds us that all these seemingly universal features of ‘embodiment’ and ‘coping’ might be cut through with social relations all the way down, as it were – that there is no universal phenomenological domain waiting to be exemplified by this or that particular game.